By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Emily Rose
GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israeli forces carried out their biggest Gaza ground attack in their 20-day-old war with Hamas overnight as anger grew in the Arab world over Israel's relentless bombardment of the besieged Palestinian territory.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had said Israeli troops were still preparing for a full ground invasion, while the U.S. and other countries urged Israel to delay, fearing it could ignite hostilities on other Middle East fronts.
The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said it may soon have to shut down operations in Gaza if no fuel reaches the Hamas-ruled territory amid a desperate need for shelter, water, food and medical services.
The Israeli military says Hamas is holding large reserves of fuel which could be used by hospitals.
Overly stringent checks on trucks at the Rafah crossing from Egypt into Gaza were slowing the flow of aid, U.N. World Food Programme Executive Director Cindy McCain said in an interview with Reuters.
"We need safe, unfettered access into Gaza so that we can feed and make sure that people don’t starve to death, because that’s what’s happening," McCain said.
Israel has bombarded the densely populated Gaza Strip following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israeli communities. Israel says Hamas killed some 1,400 people including children, and took more than 200 hostages, some of them infants and older adults.
Gaza's health ministry said on Thursday that 7,028 Palestinians had been killed in the retaliatory air strikes, including 2,913 children.
The U.S. State Department said Washington knows that a significant number of people have died in Gaza but does not have independent confirmation of numbers, and it does not trust figures released by Hamas.
The Israeli military has also said Hamas figures cannot be trusted, but has not provided its own assessment. Gaza health ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qidra rejected statements questioning the figures.
The ministry on Thursday published a 212-page document with names and ID numbers of the more than 7,000 Palestinians it says were killed in Israel's bombardment.
BIGGEST ISRAELI INCURSION INTO GAZA YET
Israeli army radio said the military had overnight staged its biggest incursion into northern Gaza of the war.
"Tanks and infantry struck numerous terrorist cells, infrastructure and anti-tank missile launch posts," it said.
Palestinians said Israeli air strikes pounded the territory again overnight and people in central Gaza reported intensive tank shelling all night.
Governments in the West and the Middle East are concerned about a wider regional conflict developing.
U.S. forces have been attacked more than a dozen times in Iraq and Syria in the past week by what Washington suspects are Iran-backed groups. Israel and Lebanon-based Hezbollah have exchanged fire. The United States has sent warships and fighter aircraft to the region since Oct. 7 and on Thursday the Pentagon said about 900 more U.S. troops have arrived in the Middle East or are heading there to bolster air defences for U.S. personnel.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivered a direct message to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei against targeting U.S. personnel in the region, the White House said on Thursday.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian had said at the United Nations that if Israel's offensive against Hamas did not stop, the United States will "not be spared from this fire".
For Israel's part, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, asked at a press conference about the possibility of a confrontation with Iran, said Israel has "no interest in expanding the war."
"We are waging war on the southern front against Hamas, prepared for any development in the north, Hezbollah is suffering many losses," Gallant said.
With no sign of a let-up in Gaza, the foreign ministers of Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates condemned what they called the targeting of civilians and violations of international law.
Their joint statement said Israel's right to self-defence did not justify breaking the law and neglecting Palestinians' rights. The Arab ministers condemned forced displacement and collective punishment of Palestinians in Gaza, where an estimated more than 613,000 people have been made homeless and are being sheltered by UNRWA.
They also criticised Israel's occupation of Palestinian areas and called for more efforts to implement a two-state solution to the decades-long conflict - an idea at the heart of long-moribund peacemaking.
"The absence of a political solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has led to repeated acts of violence and suffering for the Palestinian and Israeli peoples and the peoples of the region," it said.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Friday will send a clear signal of backing for Israel.
At an EU summit, a declaration expressed the group's "gravest concern for the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza." It called for "continued, rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access and aid to reach those in need", including humanitarian corridors and pauses in fighting to deliver aid.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told Bloomberg News that Washington was looking for more ways to reduce the flow of financing to Hamas.
Concern also grew over the fate of more than 200 hostages seized by Hamas in the Oct. 7 assault and taken to Gaza.
A spokesman for Hamas's armed wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, said on Thursday about 50 captives had been killed in Gaza due to Israeli strikes. He gave no further details and Reuters was unable to verify the numbers.
(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Tala Ramadan, Henrietta Chacar, Emily Rose, Jeff Mason, Phil Stewart and Michelle Nichols; Writing by Philippa Fletcher, Angus MacSwan, Giles Elgood and Grant McCool; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Howard Goller)