Israel continued its ground assault on Gaza for a second night, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying Israel had begun a new phase of its “long and arduous” war to destroy Hamas.
Israeli army spokesman Daniel Hajari said on Sunday that Israel had sent more troops to Gaza overnight, and combat operations were still continuing in the northern Strip. He added: “We are progressing through the stages of the war according to our plan.” “We are gradually expanding our onshore operations.”
He was speaking as telephone and internet communications were restored in Gaza two days after Israeli air strikes knocked out almost all communications in the besieged area, leaving many residents without contact with the outside world.
The United Nations said that thousands of desperate Palestinians stormed its warehouses in Gaza to seize flour and other basic materials, a sign that civil order was beginning to collapse in the Strip.
Israel has been bombing Gaza for three weeks since a Hamas attack on the country on October 7, in which at least 1,400 Israelis were killed, the bloodiest day in the country’s 75-year history. Hamas also took 229 hostages, both civilians and soldiers, and is still holding them.
The Hamas-controlled Health Ministry said on Sunday that the death toll in Gaza since the start of the Israeli offensive had risen to 8,005 Palestinians, in addition to 20,242 wounded.
Israel sent troops and tanks into Gaza on Friday evening, and controls several sites in the Strip. The ground operation was accompanied by what the United Nations described as “the most severe Israeli air strikes and artillery shelling” since the beginning of the war.
UNRWA, the main UN agency providing relief to Palestinians in Gaza, said thousands of people stormed its warehouses and distribution centers in the central and southern areas of the Strip, taking wheat flour and other basic survival items such as hygiene supplies.
Thomas White, Director of UNRWA Affairs in Gaza, described this as “a worrying sign that the civilian order is beginning to collapse.”
In the latest evidence that the conflict threatens to inflame broader tensions in the Middle East, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said on the social media platform
At a news conference in Jerusalem late Saturday evening, Netanyahu said the war had now entered its “second phase.” He added, “Its goals are clear: to destroy Hamas’ military and governmental capabilities and return the hostages.”
He described the conflict as “a war for Israel’s very existence.” “We always said, ‘Never again.’ It will never happen again now.”
But he stopped short of describing the attack as a large-scale invasion, saying only that Israel decided to “expand ground operations” in Gaza and sent “additional ground forces” there.
Amos Yadlin, a retired general and former head of military intelligence, said that although the operations were not the blitzkrieg that many expected, they still marked the beginning of a ground invasion that had long been signaled.
“It’s inch by inch, meter by metre,” he said. “It’s a low-intensity conflict, and it started last night.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross said that thousands of families in Gaza are “sleeping in makeshift shelters or in the open with little food and water.” She added that hospitals were on the verge of collapse and that sewage plants were no longer working.
Israel has prevented most humanitarian aid from entering Gaza, and only allows a small number of trucks per day to enter, which the United Nations and other agencies have said is not enough for Gaza’s population of 2.3 million people.
“I am shocked by the unbearable level of human suffering, and I urge the parties to the conflict to de-escalate now,” said Mirjana Spoljaric, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross. “It is unacceptable that civilians do not have a safe place to go in Gaza amid the intense bombardment, and under the ongoing military blockade, there is also no adequate humanitarian response currently possible.”
Doctors Without Borders, a medical humanitarian organisation, said: “Northern Gaza is being leveled, while the entire strip is being bombed, and civilians have nowhere to turn.”
She added: “The international community must take stronger measures to urge Israel to stop the bloodshed. People are being killed and forcibly displaced from their homes, and water and fuel are running out. “The atrocities are on an unprecedented scale in Gaza.”
But Colonel Elad Goren, a senior officer in the Office for the Coordination of Government Activities (COGAT), the Israeli military body responsible for civilian affairs in the Palestinian territories, questioned international relief organizations’ description of the situation in Gaza.
He said there was enough food inside the besieged area “for weeks to come,” that medical supplies were still readily available, and that water was “fully accessible,” especially in southern Gaza.
“These are not normal levels [of water for Gaza] “But it meets basic human needs.” He added that Israel plans to “significantly increase” the volume of humanitarian aid allowed into Gaza from Egypt next week.
Netanyahu faces a major dilemma in escalating the ground offensive: The families of the hostages, whom the prime minister met on Saturday evening, warned that the invasion could put their lives in danger.
“Any move in mind [should] “We take into consideration the well-being of our loved ones,” said Merav Leshem Gonen, the mother of Rumi Leshem, 23, who was kidnapped from a music festival.
Hamas media quoted Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s top leader in Gaza, as saying that the movement is ready to release the hostages in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli prisons.
But Hajari rejected the offer, calling it “psychological terrorism.” “It has one goal: to manipulate Israeli civilians,” he said.
Additional reporting by Neri Zilber in Tel Aviv
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