Israeli forces are expanding ground operations in Gaza while their fighter jets have struck hundreds more Hamas targets, the Israeli military said on Sunday, in what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called the second phase of a three-week-old war.
Telephone and internet communications were partially restored in Gaza on Sunday after a more than day-long blackout that had badly impacted rescue operations as Israel pounded targets of the militant Hamas group that controls the territory.
“Israel cut us off from the world in order to wipe us out, but we are hearing the sounds of explosions and we are proud the resistance fighters have stopped them at meters distance,” said Shaban Ahmed, a public servant who stayed in Gaza City despite an Israeli warning to evacuate south.
Ahmed said he only found out on Sunday that his cousin had been killed in an air strike on Friday because of the blackout.
Israeli Defence Force (IDF) fighter jets struck over 450 military targets belonging to Hamas in the Gaza Strip, including operational command centers, observation posts, and anti-tank missile launch posts, the military said.
“We are gradually expanding the ground activity and the scope of our forces in the Gaza Strip,” military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari told a briefing. “We will do everything we can from the air, sea and land to ensure the safety of our forces and achieve the goals of the war.”
Thousands of desperate Gaza residents broke into warehouses and distribution centres of the United Nations Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA) grabbing flour and “basic survival items”, the organisation said on Sunday.
Israel will allow a dramatic increase in aid to Gaza in the coming days and Palestinian civilians should head to a “humanitarian zone” in the south of the tiny territory, said Colonel Elad Goren of Cogat, the Israeli Defence Ministry agency that coordinates with the Palestinians.
Israel has tightened its blockade and bombarded Gaza for three weeks since the Islamist group Hamas’ devastating Oct. 7 attack. At least 1,400 people 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-defence. 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.
Medical authorities in the Gaza Strip, which has a population of 2.3 million people, say 8,005 Palestinians – including 3,342 minors – have been killed in Israel’s campaign to obliterate the Iran-backed militants.
Displaced Palestinians staying in tents in Gaza’s Khan Younis described dire living conditions, with little access to food and water and having to queue hours for the toilet.
“I wish God will have mercy on us and the war stops,” said Rami Al-Erqan, a father cradling his daughter, one of his six children. “We reached a state where we wish to have died under the rubble just to find some rest. Our life is torture.”
Central Israel also came under heavy rocket fire on Sunday, with sirens sounding in several major cities.
Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, said on its Telegram account that it was “bombing Tel Aviv in response to the Zionist massacres against civilians”.
Netanyahu warned Israelis on Saturday to expect a “long and hard” campaign but stopped short of calling the current incursions in Gaza 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 say.
Netanyahu also 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.
Pope Francis on Sunday called for a ceasefire in the Gaza war and renewed his call for the release of all hostages.
The Palestinian Red Crescent said on Sunday it had received warnings from Israeli authorities to immediately evacuate al-Quds hospital in the Gaza Strip, adding that raids conducted on Sunday had taken place just 50 metres from the facility.
An Israeli military spokesman declined to comment on the statement.
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.
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.
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.
Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk offered his SpaceX’s Starlink satellite network to support communications in Gaza for “internationally recognised aid organisations”. Israel responded that it would fight the move, saying Hamas would “use it for terrorist activities”.
Netanyahu, who met 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.