Israel’s military said Thursday it is prepared to defend the country and strike back if Iran retaliates for a deadly airstrike on the Iranian Consulate in Syria.

Tehran holds Israel responsible for the attack earlier this month, which the U.S. military believes Israel carried out. Israel has not commented on it. The increased tensions have sparked international concern that Israel’s devastating war against Hamas in Gaza could spill over into the rest of the Middle East.

Six months of fighting in Gaza have pushed the tiny Palestinian territory into a humanitarian crisis, leaving more than 1 million people on the brink of starvation. The head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Samantha Power, told lawmakers Wednesday she accepted “credible” reports that famine is now occurring in hard-hit northern Gaza. President Joe Biden said this week that Israel is not doing enough to increase the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza.

Israeli bombardments and ground offensives have killed at least 33,360 Palestinians in Gaza and wounded 74,993, the Health Ministry says. The ministry doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants in its tally, but says women and children make up two-thirds of the dead.

The war started on Oct. 7 when Hamas killed 1,200 Israelis in a surprise attack, mostly civilians. Palestinian militants took around 250 people hostage.

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— A mission of mercy, then a fatal strike: How an aid convoy in Gaza became Israel’s target

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— Find more AP coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war

Here’s the latest:

ISRAELI MILITARY SAYS IT IS PREPARED TO STRIKE BACK IF IRAN ATTACKS

JERUSALEM — Israel’s military says it is prepared to defend the country and strike back if Iran decides to attack. Iran has been threatening to avenge the deaths of two of its generals killed in an airstrike in Damascus last week. It blames Israel for the strike, though Israel has not commented.

Israel has called up additional air defense units and activated other troops in anticipation of an attack by either Iran or the many proxy militant groups it supports in the region.

The army’s chief spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, told reporters Thursday that an attack from Iranian territory “would be clear proof of Iranian intentions to escalate the Middle East and stop hiding behind the proxies.”

He said Israel has improved its offensive and defensive capabilities in recent months. “We will know how to act where needed,” he said.

Hagari said the head of the U.S. military’s Central Command, Gen. Erik Kurilla, arrived in Israel for a strategic assessment with Israeli military leaders.

U.S. President Joe Biden said this week that the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security remains ironclad.

ULTRA-ORTHODOX MEN PROTEST NEW LAW THAT COULD END THEIR MILITARY SERVICE EXEMPTIONS

JERUSALEM — Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men protested in Jerusalem on Thursday over a court ruling that could end their exemptions from mandatory service in the Israeli military.

Carrying signs that read “to jail, not to the army,” they rallied in front of Israel’s military enlistment office. There were scuffles between police and some of the protesters.

Israel’s Supreme Court last month ordered an end to government subsidies for many ultra-Orthodox men who do not serve in the army. The ruling could have far-reaching consequences for the government and the tens of thousands of religious men who refuse to take part in mandatory military service.

Most Jewish men are required to serve nearly three years in the military, followed by years of reserve duty. Jewish women serve two mandatory years.

The exemptions for ultra-Orthodox — coupled with government stipends many seminary students receive through age 26 — have infuriated much of the general public.

These longstanding tensions have only grown in the six months of war in Gaza. The ultra-Orthodox say integrating into the army will threaten their generations-old way of life. The army has said it is suffering from manpower shortages because of the war.

GERMAN FM CALLS IRANIAN COUNTERPART AS TENSIONS BETWEEN IRAN AND ISRAEL ESCALATE

BERLIN — Germany’s foreign minister has spoken with her Iranian counterpart as tensions between Iran and Israel escalate.

The Foreign Ministry wrote on social network X that Annalena Baerbock spoke by phone on Thursday with Iran’s Hossein Amirabdollahian.

It didn’t give details of the call but said “no one can have an interest in a further regional escalation.”

The ministry called on all in the region “to act responsibly and exercise restraint.”

Germany is a staunch ally of Israel, which is at war in Gaza with the militant Hamas group, a proxy of Iran.

USAID CHIEF: ‘CREDIBLE’ REPORTS OF FAMINE IN NORTHERN GAZA

WASHINGTON — The head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Samantha Power, has said she accepted “credible” reports that famine was now occurring in northern Gaza and urged Israel to take further steps to surge humanitarian aid shipments.

Power told lawmakers on Wednesday that short of famine, civilians in all parts of Gaza, particularly children, are suffering from extreme malnutrition.

Her comments, in reply to a lawmaker’s question, did not include using the word “famine” but she responded affirmatively when asked whether she believes famine had begun in the north.

Power is not the first senior U.S. official to describe the hunger and malnutrition situation in Gaza. Last week in Brussels, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said all Gazans were suffering from acute food insecurity.

“Despite important steps that Israel has taken to allow assistance into Gaza, the results on the ground are woefully insufficient and unacceptable,” he told reporters at a news conference at NATO headquarters.

“A hundred percent of the population in Gaza knows acute levels of food insecurity. A hundred percent of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance,” he said.

CYPRUS FM SAYS HUMANITARIAN AID FOR GAZA STILL ARRIVING DESPITE HALT IN SHIPBORNE DELIVERIES

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Cyprus’ foreign minister says additional quantities of humanitarian aid continue to arrive in the east Mediterranean island nation for eventual transfer by ship to Gaza. That’s despite the suspension of shipborne aid deliveries to the Palestinian territory.

Constantinos Kombos told reporters Thursday that Cypriot authorities in cooperation with U.S. military officials continue preparations for a resumption of aid shipments. They will resume once the sea corridor to Gaza is reactivated after a U.S.-built floating dock designed to receive 1,500 tons or more of aid weekly is completed around May 1.

He said shipments will resume once security protocols are revised in the Palestinian territory to ensure the safe distribution of aid in the wake of the April 1 Israeli airstrikes that killed seven workers with U.S. charity World Central Kitchen.

Once that happens, Kombos said he doesn’t exclude the possibility that some shipments could reach Gaza through the WCK-built pier, where more than 300 tons of aid have already been offloaded.

Israel says the deaths were a tragic error but WCK laid the blame squarely on Israel’s military. The charity said the Israeli army had coordinated over the movement of the cars carrying the workers as they left northern Gaza.

KIBBUTZ RESIDENTS HIT HARD BY HAMAS-LED ATTACK HOLD SPECIAL PASSOVER CELEBRATION

KIBBUTZ NIR OZ, Israel — Residents of a hard-hit kibbutz in southern Israel held a special Passover celebration Thursday ahead of the Jewish holiday in less than two weeks.

On April 22, Jews around the world will celebrate one of the most important holidays recounting the biblical story of their exodus from Egypt after hundreds of years of slavery. But for many Israelis it’s hard to fathom honoring an occasion focused on freedom, when friends and family are still in captivity.

Around 250 hostages were taken when Hamas-led militants stormed into southern Israel more than six months ago. While some were released in a week-long cease-fire in November, about 130 remain, with approximately a quarter of those believed to be dead.

Kibbutz Nir Oz, the host of Thursday’s event was one of the hardest hit. Its residents comprised a third of the hostages.

On Thursday, photos of those abducted lined the empty chairs around the traditional Seder table, with flyers citing the names of those who had been killed or taken beside commemorative candles.

“Six months have passed, six months of them being there in hell. It can’t be that they are going through hell just in order to be murdered in captivity. There has to be hope, we have to free them now,” said Ofri Bibas-Levy.

Her sister, her sister’s husband and their two small boys were taken and are still held. The youngest was just 9-months old at the time he was abducted.

GERMAN AIRLINE LUFTHANSA EXTENDS FLIGHT SUSPENSIONS TO AND FROM TEHRAN

BERLIN – German airline Lufthansa says its flights to and from Tehran will remain suspended through Saturday “due to the current situation in the Middle East.”

Lufthansa, which usually has five flights per week from Frankfurt to Tehran, suspended its flights on Saturday, initially until Thursday.

In an emailed response to a query about the flights on Thursday, the company didn’t elaborate on its concerns about the situation. Iran has vowed to retaliate against Israel over an attack on its consulate in Damascus earlier this month.

Lufthansa said that flights by its Austrian Airlines subsidiary to Tehran continue because, due to the shorter flight time from Vienna, it can run the flights as “daylight operations,” with the plane returning immediately after arrival in Tehran.

It said that flights to and from Frankfurt had to be canceled “as Lufthansa has decided not to let the crew disembark in Tehran.”

BIDEN VOWS ‘IRONCLAD’ SUPPORT FOR ISRAEL AS IRAN THREATENS TO STRIKE

WASHINGTON — U.S. President Joe Biden emphasized his country’s “ironclad” support for Israel on Wednesday as Iran vows to retaliate for this month’s deadly strike on the Iranian Consulate in Syria.

The U.S. military believes Israel carried out the airstrike on Iran’s diplomatic station, which killed two top generals and others. Israel has not commented on the attack, however Tehran says it holds Israel responsible. The White House says it had no prior knowledge of the operation, but has repeatedly promised to back Israel in the face of Iranian threats.

Biden spoke Wednesday alongside Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who is in Washington for an official visit.

“We also want to address the Iranian threat — to launch a significant attack on Israel,” Biden said during a joint news conference.

“Our commitment to Israel’s security against these threats from Iran and its proxies is ironclad. We say it again, ironclad, and we’re going to do all we can to protect Israel’s security,” Biden said.

Earlier Wednesday, Iran’s supreme leader repeated a promise to retaliate against Israel. And Israel’s foreign minister threatened Wednesday that his country’s forces would strike Iran directly if the Islamic Republic launched an attack from its territory against Israel.

Since the Israel’s war in Gaza against Hamas began six months ago, there have been near-daily exchanges of fire along the Israel-Lebanon border between Israeli forces and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran.

Tehran also backs an umbrella group of Iraqi militias that have attacked U.S. military bases and positions in Syria and Iraq.

FOOD AID CHARITY SAYS ISRAELI STRIKE WOUNDED PALESTINIAN STAFFER ON SAME DAY AS DEADLY CONVOY ATTACKS

JERUSALEM — A off-duty Palestinian staff member with the food aid charity World Central Kitchen was badly wounded by an Israeli airstrike in Gaza on April 1, the same day seven other staffers were killed in a separate Israeli attack.

The staffer, identified only as Amro, was pulled from the rubble of a residence after an Israeli strike hit a nearby mosque, in the vicinity of a WCK warehouse and kitchen, the charity said Wednesday. He spent time in a coma, and WCK said is still recovering in a hospital from head and hand injuries.

Amro had joined WCK at the start of the year, the charity said in a statement, and before the war had owned a sweet shop that was destroyed by Israeli bombardments.

The statement said Amro turned down chances to leave Gaza several times: “He always says, ‘I am here serving people hot food every day. I will not leave my job and let them suffer.’”

On April 1, Israeli airstrikes on an aid convoy killed seven WCK workers — six foreigners and one Palestinian. Israel says the deaths were a tragic error. WCK laid the blame squarely on Israel’s military, saying the army had coordinated over the movement of the cars carrying the workers as they left northern Gaza.

Nearly every day, strikes level buildings with Palestinian families inside, killing men, women and children, with no explanation of the target or independent accountability over the proportionality of the strike. Israel blames the large number of civilian casualties on militants, saying they operate among the population.

ISRAEL PLANS TO OPEN A NEW ENTRY POINT FOR AID INTO NORTHERN GAZA INSTEAD OF THE DAMAGED EREZ CROSSING

TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel will soon open a new crossing to deliver humanitarian aid into the hard-hit northern Gaza Strip, Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Wednesday.

Gallant’s announcement comes at a time of heavy U.S. pressure to increase the flow of desperately needed aid into Gaza. Earlier Wednesday, U.S. President Joe Biden said Israel’s efforts are still “not enough.”

Israeli officials say the new crossing will be built instead of using the damaged Erez crossing, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged last week to open. Erez was destroyed by Hamas militants during their Oct. 7 attack and was designed for pedestrians, not cargo, according to COGAT, the Israeli military body in charge of Palestinian civilian affairs.

An official from COGAT said the new crossing would be close to the beachfront on Gaza’s northern tip. It was not clear exactly when the crossing will be opened. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

At a briefing with reporters, Gallant said Israel plans a number of additional steps to improve the humanitarian situation – including using its port in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod to accept aid shipments for the Palestinians. It was not clear when the port would open.

He also says Israel will allow Jordan to deliver more aid to Gaza, and that Israel is working with the U.S. on infrastructure projects such as new water lines.

Israel faces pressure from the U.S. to increase aid into Gaza, where its offensive has wreaked an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe. Aid groups say supplies are not reaching people quickly enough, blaming Israeli restrictions and noting that thousands of trucks are waiting to enter Gaza.

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Associated Press writer Julia Frankel contributed.

BIDEN SAYS ISRAEL STILL NOT DOING ENOUGH TO GET AID INTO GAZA

WASHINGTON — U.S. President Joe Biden said Wednesday that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not doing enough to increase humanitarian aid into Gaza.

“We’ll see what he does in terms of meeting the commitments that he made to me,” Biden said at the White House.

Biden has warned Netanyahu that future U.S. support for the war depends on swift implementation of new steps to protect civilians and aid workers. Although the flow of trucks has increased since Biden spoke with Netanyahu last week, the U.S. president said Israel should open another access point in Gaza’s north.

Israel halted aid deliveries to Gaza in the early days of the war, but under U.S. pressure has slowly increased the number of trucks allowed to enter the territory.

Still, aid groups say supplies are not reaching desperate people quickly enough, blaming Israeli restrictions and noting that thousands of trucks are waiting to enter Gaza. Countries have attempted less efficient ways to deliver aid, including airdrops and by sea.

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