JERUSALEM — Israeli forces waged ground operations against Hamas in Gaza on Sunday in what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the second phase of a three-week-old war aimed at crushing the Palestinian militant group.
Gaza’s besieged residents had faced a near-total communications and Internet blackout as Israel’s warplanes dropped bombs and its troops and armor pushed into the Hamas-ruled enclave, with Israeli military chiefs signaling they were gearing up for an expanded ground offensive.
The disruption of communications impacted rescue operations as people hit by Israeli air strikes could not call for help. However, several Palestinian media outlets reported early on Sunday that phone and internet communications were returning gradually in Gaza.
Netanyahu warned Israelis to expect a “long and hard” campaign but stopped short of calling the current incursions an invasion. Some of U.S. President Joe Biden’s aides have advised Israeli counterparts to hold off on an immediate all-out assault, U.S. officials have said.
Even as initial ground operations appeared limited for now, Netanyahu pledged to spare no effort to free the more than 200 hostages, including foreigners, 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 a news conference on Saturday.
“We are only at the start,” he said. “We will destroy the enemy above ground and below ground.”
Israel has tightened its blockade and bombarded Gaza for three weeks since the Islamist group Hamas’ devastating Oct. 7 attack. At least 1,400 Israelis were killed in the deadliest day of the nation’s 75-year history, Israeli authorities said.
Western countries have generally backed what they say is Israel’s right to self-defense. But there has been a mounting international outcry over the toll from the bombing and growing calls for a “humanitarian pause” to allow aid to reach Gaza civilians and ease the humanitarian crisis.
Thousands of Gaza residents broke into warehouses and distribution centers of the United Nations Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA) grabbing flour and “basic survival items”, the organization said on Sunday.
“This is a worrying sign that civil order is starting to break down after three weeks of war and a tight siege on Gaza,” UNRWA said in a statement.
Medical authorities in the Gaza Strip, which has a population of 2.3 million people, say 7,650 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s campaign to obliterate the Iran-backed militants.
President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority governs parts of the occupied West Bank while Hamas rules Gaza, said: “Our people in the Gaza Strip are facing a war of genocide and massacres committed by the Israeli occupation forces in full view of the entire world.”
Three Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank overnight, the Palestinian health ministry said on Sunday.
With many buildings in Gaza reduced to rubble and shelter hard to find, residents are short of food, water, fuel and medicines.
“God help anyone under the rubble,” said one Gaza journalist, who spent a terrifying night in a building stairway as bombs fell and Israeli forces appeared to exchange fire with Palestinian fighters.
Israel’s chief military spokesperson declined to say whether Israel had been behind the telecommunications blackout but said it would do what it needed to protect its forces.
Israel sent troops and tanks into Gaza on Friday night, focusing on infrastructure including the extensive tunnel network built by Hamas, the Israeli military said. It provided no details on the size of the deployment.
Netanyahu on Saturday reiterated Israel’s call for Palestinian civilians to evacuate the northern Gaza Strip where Israel was focusing its attack on what it was were Hamas hideouts and other installations.
But 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,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said. The U.N. Security Council plans to meet on Monday on the Israel-Gaza crisis, diplomats said.
Palestinian officials said around 50,000 people were taking shelter in the Gaza Shifa Hospital and said they were concerned about ongoing Israeli threats to the facility.
Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk offered his SpaceX’s Starlink satellite network to support communications in Gaza for “internationally recognized aid organizations”. Israel responded that it would fight the move, saying Hamas would “use it for terrorist activities”.
Netanyahu, who met with hostages’ families on Saturday, said contacts to secure their release would continue even during a ground offensive and that military pressure on Hamas could help bring them home. He did not elaborate.
Qatar-mediated negotiations between Israel and Hamas continued but at a much slower pace than before Friday’s escalation in Gaza, a source briefed on the talks said.
Hamas’ armed wing said its fighters battled Israeli troops in northeastern and central Gaza. “Al-Qassam Brigades and all Palestinian resistance forces are fully prepared to confront the aggression with full force and thwart the incursions,” it said. — Reuters