The scope of Israel’s latest movement of ground forces remained unclear, along with whether it marked steps toward the full-scale incursion that Israel has vowed to carry out in an attempt to crush the militant group Hamas. In recent days, Israeli ground units have conducted targeted strikes in Gaza.
An Israel Defense Forces spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, told reporters Friday that the military has “severely increased” attacks in Gaza, with air, ground and naval forces targeting Hamas positions. He stopped short of saying a major ground incursion was forthcoming.
Another Israeli military spokesman, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, said forces have conducted targeted raids inside the strip in the past few days with the aim of “preparing the ground for future stages” of the operation.
On Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the country’s war cabinet and military chief of staff had “determined unanimously” on a timetable for a ground incursion. However, he gave no indication on when it could occur or at what scale.
The military statement Friday came amid a widespread internet blackout that amounted to the largest disruption to communications since the war began nearly three weeks ago, with a Hamas rampage in Israel on Oct. 7 that claimed more than 1,400 lives and left more than 200 hostages in the militants’ hands. Humanitarian organizations say they lost contact with their staffs in Gaza and fear for patients and medical workers.
Earlier Friday, a pre-dawn deployment of armored vehicles into Gaza marked Israel’s largest ground operation in the area in years. Civilians inside Gaza reported some of the heaviest bombardments in days and were bracing for growing danger as the war appeared to reach a new phase.
The Israeli military released an analysis of an alleged underground Hamas “terrorist command center” under al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, the enclave’s largest health-care facility, where thousands have taken refuge. The Washington Post could not independently verify the Israeli claims. Hagari said Israel will continue attacking Gaza City and its surrounding areas and warned Gazans to evacuate to what he said were safer areas in southern Gaza.
But the Gaza Health Ministry said Friday that most of the Palestinians killed in the past 24 hours had moved to southern Gaza. The Israeli military did not respond to a request for comment on civilian deaths in the south. The Post cannot independently verify death tolls reported in Gaza.
The Israel Defense Forces told the news organizations Reuters and Agence France-Presse that the military could not guarantee the security of reporters working in the Gaza Strip, according to Reuters. In a statement, Reuters said the military’s “unwillingness to give assurances about the safety of our staff threatens their ability to deliver the news about this conflict without fear of being injured or killed.”
The escalation of military force comes as the United States and other governments have urged Israel to hold off on a major ground offensive and allow “humanitarian pauses” in airstrikes to let a steady flow of aid enter Gaza and permit American and other foreign citizens to exit into Egypt. While President Biden has publicly indicated he would support Israel if it launches a ground offensive, officials in his administration are concerned about the repercussions and are privately urging Israel to rethink its plans, according to U.S. officials familiar with the discussions.
The Biden administration also seeks to advance negotiations to free more hostages. But Israeli officials told local media that they believed the talks — led by Qatar as a liaison with Hamas — were being used by Hamas as a stalling tactic. So far, four captives have been released.
John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, declined to say whether the United States knew Friday that Israel was about to widen its operations, how long the conflict could last or whether Israel’s expansion of the conflict now hurts hostage recovery efforts.
“All I can tell you is we want to see the hostages released,” he said. But ultimately, Kirby said, the Israelis are going to make their own decisions on the battlefield and answer for them.
“They have to drive the strategy that they have developed, operationally and then tactically,” he said.
A breakdown in communications is obscuring conditions on the ground in Gaza. Reporters for media outlets including The Washington Post have lost contact with local colleagues. Repeated local calls to Palestinian cellphone networks in the coastal enclave did not go through.
A host of organizations announced Friday they were unable to reach their medical teams because of the internet outages, including the Red Crescent Society operating in Gaza, the International Committee of the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and the World Health Organization.
“Without information in a communication blackout, people don’t know where to go for safety,” said Jessica Moussan, spokeswoman for International Committee of the Red Cross. “Blackouts impede humanitarian and medical personnel from working safely and effectively.”
The NetBlocks monitoring group said Friday that it had observed a “total or near-total blackout of internet service,” the largest single disruption since hostilities began.
The outage probably means that more than 1 million displaced Gazans — already running out of food and water — have lost touch with scattered family members and the outside world amid some of the most intense bombardment of the conflict.
The major Palestinian telecoms network, Jawwal, said air raids had caused the destruction of “all international lines linking Gaza to the outside world.” Another major provider, NetStream, went dark Thursday night after reporting that it was running out of fuel to power its service.
Amanda Meng, a research scientist with the Internet Outage Detection and Analysis project at the Georgia Institute of Technology, wrote in an email that only 7 percent of networks in Gaza were responding to the project’s pings, down from 15 percent just a few hours earlier. Connectivity in the Gaza Strip had declined in steps since the Oct. 7 attacks, before which it had been at almost 90 percent.
If physical damage from airstrikes caused the disruptions, the ongoing destruction in Gaza could delay efforts to get the Palestinian territory back online, experts said.
Hamas issued a statement accusing Israel of cutting the internet to keep the devastation from the air attacks “from the eyes of the press and the world.”
At the United Nations, the General Assembly overwhelmingly adopted an Arab-sponsored, nonbinding resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza. The body rejected a proposed Canadian-sponsored and U.S.-supported amendment to include specific condemnation of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the taking of hostages.
As fears grow that the unrest in Gaza will morph into a broader regional conflict, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut recommended for the first time that all U.S. citizens leave Lebanon “now, while commercial flights remain available, due to the unpredictable security situation.”
“There is no guarantee the U.S. government will evacuate private U.S. citizens and their family members in a crisis situation,” the Friday statement added.
Loveluck, Nirappil and Taylor reported from Washington. Miriam Berger in Jerusalem, Dan Lamothe, Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.