Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Israeli forces have unleashed the second phase of the Gaza war as they pressed ground operations against Hamas militants, vowing to “destroy the enemy above ground and below ground.”
Gaza’s besieged people had barely any communication with the outside world as Israeli jets dropped more bombs on the Hamas-ruled Palestinian enclave, and military chiefs said a long-threatened ground offensive was gearing up.
Speaking at a press conference in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu warned that the war would be “long and hard” and reiterated Israel’s appeal to Palestinian civilians to evacuate the northern Gaza Strip, where Israel was focusing its attack.
He vowed that every effort would be made to rescue the more than 200 hostages held by Hamas.
“This is the second stage of the war whose goals are clear — to destroy Hamas’ governing and military capabilities and to bring the hostages home,” Netanyahu told reporters.
“We are only at the start.
“We will destroy the enemy above ground and below ground.”
Israel has blockaded and bombarded Gaza for three weeks after the Islamist group Hamas’ October 7 assault killed 1400 Israelis in the deadliest day of the nation’s 75-year history.
Western countries have generally backed what they say is Israel’s right to self-defence. Still, there has been mounting international concern over the toll from the bombing and growing calls for a pause to allow aid to reach Gaza civilians.
Health authorities in the Gaza Strip of 2.3 million people say 7650 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s campaign to obliterate the militants.
With many buildings reduced to rubble and hard-to-find shelters, Gazans are short of food, water, fuel and medicines.
Their plight got worse from Friday night when phone and internet services were cut – followed by heavy bombing through the night.
“God help anyone under the rubble,” said one Gaza journalist, who spent a terrifying night in a building stairway watching “belts of fire” as bombs fell and Israeli forces appeared to exchange fire with Palestinian fighters.
Without mobile phones, no one could call ambulances, and emergency services were short of fuel, he said. Desperate people were turning to the police when they could be found to use their walkie-talkies to seek help.
Though there was no indication of an invasion en masse, Israel said troops sent into Gaza on Friday night were still in the field, focusing on infrastructure, including the extensive tunnel network built by Hamas.
“We attacked terror operatives of all ranks, everywhere,” Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said earlier.
In calling on Gazans to move south, Israel said Hamas was hiding under civilian buildings, especially in the north.
Palestinians say nowhere is safe, with bombs also smashing homes in the south of the densely populated territory.
“A humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in front of our eyes,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said.
Various global aid agencies said they could not contact their staff in Gaza. But a representative from the International Committees of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Gaza got an audio message.
Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk offered his Starlink satellite network to support communications in Gaza for internationally recognised aid organisations.
Video from the Israeli side of the heavily fortified fence showed explosions in Gaza, sending up clouds of smoke among a line of ruined buildings.
Al Jazeera, which broadcast live satellite TV footage overnight showing frequent blasts, said air strikes had hit areas around the enclave’s main hospital, Al Shifa.
Israel had accused Hamas of using the hospital as a shield for tunnels and operational centres, which the group denied.
Reuters could not verify reports of strikes by the hospital.