Israeli forces have announced that they are “expanding” ground activities in northern Gaza as the besieged enclave faces the largest bombardment of Israeli attacks since the start of the war.
Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, has promised to meet attacks with “full force” in response to the ground operations overnight, with the Israeli army saying that its soldiers were still in the field on Saturday morning.
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Israeli troops, backed by tanks, launched brief overnight incursions into Gaza on Wednesday and Thursday night, but this third and largest offensive marks an escalation of their ground manoeuvres. The bombing completely destroyed hundreds of buildings and houses overnight, the Gaza Civil Defence said.
“We attacked above the ground and underground, we attacked terror operatives of all ranks, everywhere,” Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said in a video statement on Saturday. “The instructions for the forces are clear: the operation will continue until a new order.”
The ground raids come amid heavy air bombardments and Israel knocking out communications in Gaza to create a near-blackout of information, largely cutting off the besieged population of 2.3 million from contact with the outside world.
United Nations officials, NGOs and media, including Al Jazeera, had difficulty reaching their teams on the ground.
On Saturday morning, Al Jazeera’s Hani Mahmoud managed to report live from Khan Younis in southern Gaza.
He described what Palestinians lived through as “the most difficult and bloodiest night since the beginning of this war”.
Palestinian health authorities say that more than 7,703 Palestinians have been killed since October 7, when Israel began its aerial bombardment of the Strip. This, after Hamas launched an attack inside Israel that killed at least 1,405 people there.
Describing the events that took place overnight, Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud said, “It all started when the Israeli military spokesperson distributed a map asserting that al-Shifa hospital is the headquarters of Hamas leadership … Hamas then denied it has any rooms underneath the hospital. An hour later, Gaza experienced a complete blackout.
“At about 7pm local time, a major attack by sea and land took place, concentrated on the northern part of the Gaza Strip, around the vicinity of al-Shifa hospital,” he said.
It was difficult to get an exact number of casualties at this stage, but “we have been hearing reports that hundreds of people have been killed in those areas and emergency services were not able to get to them in time to help”, Mahmoud said, adding that families in southern Gaza have also not been able to reach their relatives in the north.
“The problem with cutting Gaza from the outside world has made people feel it could be a genocide in the making without them knowing what has happened to their relatives,” he said.
Late on Friday, Israeli military spokesperson Daniel Hagari said ground forces were “expanding their activity” in Gaza and “acting with great force … to achieve the objectives of the war”. Israel has amassed hundreds of thousands of troops along the border before an expected wider ground offensive.
Israel also claimed it had killed the man in charge of air operations for Hamas, describing him as one of the planners of the October 7 attacks, but this has not been independently verified.
Overnight into Saturday, warplanes struck 150 tunnels and underground bunkers in northern Gaza, the military said. Hamas’s extensive underground installations, many of them located under Gaza City in the north of the territory, are seen as key targets of the offensive.
On Saturday, Hagari said the army was “progressing through the stages” of the war in Gaza.
He said, “Infantry, armoured, engineering and artillery forces are participating in the [military] activity, accompanied by heavy [air] fire.”
He later reissued a call for Palestinians to evacuate the northern Gaza Strip. “For your immediate safety, we urge all residents of northern Gaza and Gaza City to temporarily relocate south … The impending [Israeli military] operation is set to neutralise the threat of Hamas with precision and intensity,” he said.
Meanwhile, Hamas fired some rockets from the Gaza Strip towards Israeli border towns on Saturday. Sirens also sounded in the cities of Tel Aviv and Bat Yam, Israeli media reported, but there were no reports of damage or casualties.
On Friday, the United Nations General Assembly voted in favour of a non-binding resolution calling for an immediate humanitarian truce between Israel and Hamas.
The head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the blackout was “making it impossible” for ambulances to reach the injured in Gaza.
“Evacuation of patients is not possible under such circumstances, nor to find safe shelter,” he said in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter. He said the WHO was not able to contact its staff and health facilities.
On Saturday, Hagari said Israel will allow aid trucks with food, water and medicine into the Gaza Strip during the day.