Israel’s military said on Friday that it was “expanding” ground operations in the Gaza Strip, three weeks after Hamas militants launched a deadly attack on southern Israel.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the Israeli incursion marked the start of the long-expected invasion of Hamas-controlled Gaza, but Friday’s appeared to be the heaviest since the start of Israeli air attacks.
Mobile phone and internet connections in Gaza were cut hours before Israel announced its ground operations, and the Palestine Red Crescent Society said it had lost all contact with its teams on the ground in the strip. The Globe and Mail was also unable to reach its contacts inside the densely populated Palestinian territory.
Live television feeds fixed on the strip captured the night sky over a pitch-black Gaza repeatedly turning orange with explosions. In Jerusalem – about 100 kilometres away – warplanes could be heard roaring in the sky throughout the night as they turned overhead to fly back toward Gaza.
“In the last hours, we intensified the attacks in Gaza,” Israeli military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari told a televised briefing as the barrage escalated. “In addition to the attacks carried out in the last few days, ground forces are expanding their operations tonight, acting forcefully in all dimensions to achieve the goals of the war.”
Israeli troops, backed by tanks and helicopters, have staged several short incursions into Gaza in recent days, returning each time after their missions. Friday was the first time the military announced ground operations while the incursions were under way, and Al-Jazeera reported that Israeli troops had entered the city of Beit Hanoun, in the northeast of the strip, and the Bureij refugee camp, in the centre, and had been confronted by Hamas fighters using anti-tank weapons.
There were also reports of Israeli warships and artillery taking part in Friday’s attack. The Israeli military again repeated its call for residents of the northern half of the strip – some 1.1 million people – to move south and away from anticipated fighting.
“Gaza has lost contact with the outside world amid reports of continuous, increased bombardment,” Lynn Hastings, the United Nations resident and humanitarian co-ordinator for Palestine, wrote on social media. She added that hospitals and humanitarian operations in Gaza will be unable to continue without communications and other necessities that Israel has cut off or restricted in recent weeks, including fuel, food, water and medications. “Wars have rules,” she added. “Civilians must be protected.”
In New York, UN Secretary-General António Guterres repeated his earlier call for a humanitarian ceasefire. “Everyone must assume their responsibilities. This is a moment of truth. History is judging us all,” he said in a statement.
The UN General Assembly passed a non-binding resolution calling for an “immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce.” The measure was opposed by Israel, the U.S. and 12 others, while Canada abstained. A Canadian amendment to the resolution, which added a line saying the UN “unequivocally rejects and condemns the terrorist attacks by Hamas,” was defeated – to applause from parts of the chamber – after it failed to secure the necessary two-thirds majority.
Ceasefire appeals have largely gone ignored over the past three weeks as Israel has bombarded Gaza in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas, which killed more than 1,400 people, according to the Israeli government. “Israel is opposed to a humanitarian pause or ceasefire at this time,” Lior Haiat, a spokesperson for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said on Friday, a day after Canada and the U.S. had both called for a “humanitarian pause” to allow more aid to reach the strip.
Israel has allowed only a trickle of aid trucks to enter the strip via Egypt during the conflict – just 10 on Friday, compared to hundreds per day before the war. Gaza has as a result run desperately low on water, food, medicines and fuel.
Meanwhile, the death toll in the strip has continued to rise. On Thursday, the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza released a list of 6,747 names of men, women and children – with ages and identification numbers – that it said had died since Oct. 7. On Friday, the death toll was reported to have passed 7,300.
But while Israel has repeatedly declared its intention to invade Gaza and eradicate Hamas – the country has mobilized some 360,000 troops – its ground forces have spent much of the past three weeks conducting training missions. Analysts say Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been waiting for the United States to get extra military equipment into the region in case the war spreads beyond Israel.
Iran is the main foreign backer of Hamas. It also backs Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, which has been involved in regular but more limited exchanges of fire with the Israeli military since the outbreak of the war.
There are fears the fighting could spread to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, a Palestinian territory that is not controlled by Hamas. Some 110 people have been killed there so far in October, making it the deadliest month in the territory since the last Palestinian intifada two decades ago. Husam Badran, a member of the Hamas leadership who is based in Qatar, called Friday for all Palestinians to rise up. “This is the time to grab our weapons,” he said in a statement.
Hamas fighters in Gaza, meanwhile, are believed to be dug in and waiting for the Israeli ground assault. Yocheved Lifshitz, one of the more than 220 hostages taken by Hamas on Oct. 7, and one of only four released so far, described being held captive in a “spiderweb” of tunnels under Gaza.
Hours before the apparent ground incursion began, Mr. Netanyahu posted a video to social media with video-game-style graphics showing Hamas fighters walking through a network of tunnels and underground offices. He said this illustrated how Hamas had built a “headquarters for their terror” under Gaza’s main al-Shifa Hospital.
Doctors from al-Shifa immediately gave a news conference, saying that there was nothing under their hospital except basement operating rooms that had been there for decades. Tens of thousands of Palestinians have reportedly taken shelter in and around the hospital grounds.
There are very few journalists on the ground in Gaza to verify the various claims. On Friday, Reuters and Agence France-Presse – which are among the few news agencies with staff still in Gaza – said in statements that they had been warned by the Israeli military that “we cannot guarantee your employees’ safety” because Hamas was conducting military activity “in the vicinity of journalists and civilians.”
The military’s “unwillingness to give assurances about the safety of our staff threatens their ability to deliver the news about this conflict without fear of being injured or killed,” Reuters said.
Meanwhile, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, another militant group active in Gaza, continued to fire rockets at Israeli cities on Friday, including one rocket that got through Israel’s air defences, striking a residential building in Tel Aviv. Four people were injured.
Sirens also sounded in the southern cities of Sderot and Ashkelon after the Israeli military’s announcement of ground operations.