Israeli air and ground forces are intensifying their operations in the Gaza Strip, Israel’s chief military spokesman said Friday evening, amid exceptionally heavy bombardment and a communications blackout across the besieged territory.
After dark, frequent explosions from airstrikes lit up the sky over Gaza City. The Red Crescent, the World Health Organization, Médecins Sans Frontières, Unicef and other aid groups said they had lost contact with their staff in Gaza. Palestinian telephone service provider Paltel said its telephone connections and internet services had been cut.
“Over the past few hours, we have intensified attacks in Gaza,” Israeli military spokesman Vice Admiral Daniel Hagari said, adding that the airstrikes had targeted Hamas tunnels and other areas. targets. “In addition to the attacks we have carried out in recent days, the ground forces are expanding their activity this evening,” he said. “The IDF is acting with great force…to achieve the goals of the war. »
In Ashkelon, an Israeli seaside town 12 km north of the border with Gaza, the constant sound of detonations could be heard as helicopters and fighter jets flew up and down the seafront. The road to the north was crowded with people who had postponed their departure until the last minute.
Mark Regev, a senior government adviser, said Hamas would pay for its crimes. “Tonight we start paying back,” he said. “When this is over, Gaza will be very different. »
Hamas’ military wing said in a statement that it was confronting Israeli forces in the areas of Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza and Burej in the center of the territory – two entry points that were used by IDF forces during of previous conflicts.
The escalation came as the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly called for an immediate and lasting humanitarian truce in Gaza. The non-binding vote passed with 120 votes in favor, while 45 abstained and 14 – including Israel and the United States – voted against.
Earlier on Friday, the UN said basic services in Gaza had collapsed, leaving people exposed to major outbreaks as streets overflowed with sewage, with food, water and medicine disappearing .
Gaza was virtually out of fuel and on the brink of a “massive health risk”, Philippe Lazzarini, head of the United Nations relief and works agency for the Palestinian people, said Friday. UNESCO said Israeli bombing damaged more than 200 schools, about 40 percent of Gaza’s total. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) said 14 of its employees had been killed in the previous 24 hours.
The IDF’s announcement comes after Israel asked its own population to prepare for a large-scale, lengthy and grueling ground offensive. It will last “a long time” and will be followed by lower-intensity fighting as Israeli forces destroy “pockets of resistance”, the country’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told reporters. Earlier this week, Israeli troops and armored vehicles launched two brief raids on Gaza.
“I don’t think this is the ground operation that everyone is talking about,” said Avi Melamed, a former intelligence official and military analyst. “This is certainly an increase in the volume of Israeli attacks against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, but above all it is about putting pressure on Hamas to release the hostages. “
“The very clear message is that Israel will not give Hamas unlimited time and room to play the hostage card,” Melamed said. “The other objective is that this is part of the preparatory phase of the next Israeli military expansion of the operation. »
Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has promised to invade Gaza since the Hamas attack on October 7 that left more than 1,400 people dead and around 220 taken hostage in Gaza. Israeli bombings have reduced towns to rubble and killed more than 7,300 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry.
Israel and the United States have disputed the death toll, but Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch director for Israel and Palestine, echoed the U.N. in saying the ministry’s figures from previous conflicts were reliable.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern that both sides had committed war crimes. “We are concerned about the collective punishment inflicted on Gazans in response to Hamas’ atrocious attacks, which also constitute war crimes,” a spokesperson said in Geneva.
Israel has intensified its public relations battle by accusing Hamas of using Gaza’s main hospital as a shield for its tunnels and operations, raising fears it could become a target.
Hagari showed photographs, diagrams and audio recordings at a press conference that he said showed how Hamas used the hospital system, and Al Shifa Hospital in particular, to hide command posts and tunnel entry points.
Ezzat El-Reshiq, a Hamas official and member of the movement’s politburo, refuted the claim and accused Israel of spreading lies as “a prelude to committing a new massacre against our people.”
The Israeli military has previously made this statement about Al Shifa and other hospitals, including during the 2014 conflict. It is not possible to verify the details of the latest allegations, but there is evidence that Hamas has, in the past, benefited from the coverage provided by civilian properties, notably hospitals.
During the 2014 conflict, armed men were visible in some hospitals in Gaza, while Hamas officials, including leaders and security officers, were present in Al Shifa. However, it is also clear that during the 2014 conflict and the current war, the main buildings of the Shifa hospital complex functioned primarily as a civilian health facility, making these buildings a protected civilian location.
In another development, hopes of negotiating the release of some of the dual nationality hostages faded after Hamas said it considered all of its hostages to be Israelis, regardless of additional passports they held, and that he would not release any of them without a cease-fire.
Abu Marzouk, a member of Hamas’ political bureau who is part of a delegation visiting Moscow, told the Russian news agency RIA that the group does not consider its captives Russians, French or Americans. “For us, all those who were captured are Israelis. »
The hostages include passport holders from 25 foreign countries, who make up half of those detained, according to Israeli officials.
The UN General Assembly was due to vote on Friday on a non-binding resolution proposed by Jordan calling for a “humanitarian truce”. Earlier, leaders of the 27 EU member states unanimously called for “humanitarian corridors and pauses” in bombing to allow food, water and medical supplies into Gaza.
Fears of a spread of the crisis in the region intensified after US military planes bombed two sites in eastern Syria linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, in what the Pentagon said was a response to the attacks of drones and missiles carried out by Iranian-backed groups against American bases and personnel in Syria and Iraq. .
On Friday evening, the Egyptian military announced that two drones fired from the southern Red Sea had landed in two resorts on the Sinai Peninsula, with one falling on Taba, located on the border with Israel. Six people were reportedly injured.
Hizan al-Assad, a member of the Iranian-backed Houthi rebel forces in Yemen, posted a one-word message on social media reading “Eilat”, in an apparently threatening reference to the nearby Israeli resort town of a few kilometers away.
Last week, US forces shot down three drones launched by Houthi rebels that had been fired towards Israel.
Hundreds of Palestinians from the occupied West Bank demonstrated on Friday to express solidarity with the people of Gaza. Since the Gaza eruption, Israeli forces have killed dozens, injured and arrested hundreds in the West Bank.