Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz threatened that "Gaza will burn" as Israel's military reportedly readied plans Thursday for a possible ground invasion of the occupied Palestinian territory, a major escalation that human rights advocates warned would lead to more destruction and civilian deaths.
In remarks dubbed as a message to the people of Gaza, Gantz—who served as chief of general staff for the IDF during Israel's deadly 2014 invasion of the Gaza Strip—claimed that "Hamas leaders bear responsibility for your being hunkered down in your homes" amid Israeli airstrikes.
"If citizens of Israel have to sleep in shelters" due to Hamas rocket attacks, Gantz said late Wednesday, "then Gaza will burn."
Observers viewed Gantz's remarks as a direct threat to inflict mass civilian casualties on one of the most densely populated areas in the world, a territory considered by many to be an "open-air prison" crowded with around two million people.
Ali Abunimah, co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, tweeted that Gantz's remarks "should be entered directly as evidence of war crimes to the International Criminal Court."
"Gantz said 'Gaza will burn,'" Abunimah continued. "It's direct evidence of premeditation to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity. No one can say 'I didn't know.' Anyone who aids, abets, or justifies this criminal regime has blood on their hands."
Gantz's comments came as Israel intensified its devastating bombing campaign in Gaza, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowing to "hit them with strikes they have never dreamed of."
Since Monday—when Hamas fired rockets in response to Israeli forces' assault on worshipers at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem—Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip have leveled major residential buildings and killed more than 80 Palestinians, including more than a dozen children.
"Palestinian residents of Gaza Strip woke up on Thursday to mark Eid al-Fitr—one of the holiest occasions in the Islamic calendar—amid relentless aerial bombardment by Israel," Al-Jazeera reported. "Heavy bombardment on the Gaza Strip continued early on Thursday as Israeli forces launched a series of air raids on various locations."
Later Thursday, plans for a potential ground invasion of Gaza are expected to reach the IDF general staff for approval before heading to Israel's political leadership, which has repeatedly rejected cease-fire offers from Hamas, the United Nations, and Egypt.
While it is unclear whether a ground invasion will take place, Human Rights Watch researcher Sophie McNeill said the possibility is "absolutely terrifying for civilians in Gaza trapped with nowhere to go."
Umm Majed al-Rayyes, a 50-year-old mother of four who lives in Gaza City, told the Associated Press on Wednesday that "this whole territory is a tiny place." Al-Rayyes said she was forced to flee to a neighbor's house in the middle of the night after Israeli bombs struck her apartment building.
"It's a prison," said al-Rayyes. "Everywhere you go, you're a target."