Armored units were reportedly operating at multiple locations following a withering air assault, including 150 heavy munition strikes targeting Hamas’s tunnel network that lighted the night sky and shook the ground as far away as Egypt.
Amid the barrage, Gazans — cut off from each other and the outside by a continuing phone and internet blackout — frantically searched for safety and news of their loved ones. The attacks overnight and Saturday killed 377, according to the Ministry of Health in Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas but has been a reliable source of data on casualties in the past.
More than 7,703 have been killed since Oct. 7, the ministry said. The agency communicated its figures Saturday in an interview with Al-Jazeera.
Bassem Nasser, an aide worker for Catholic Relieve Services in Rafah in southern Gaza managed to get out a WhatsApp message:
“Communication crisis continues. Limited access and limited information about the situation outside my own location. Sounds of air strikes and unprecedented artillery bombardment. No internal communication between team. Can’t confirm safety of any staff.”
The IDF said it employed heavy-scale munitions designed to destroy underground structures to hit the network of tunnels and subterranean chambers Hamas is known to operate throughout the enclave.
The extensive chain of passages is thought to be where Hamas maintains shelters for its fighters, command headquarters and communications facilities and living space for some of its top military leaders. At least some, if not most, of the more than 220 hostages taken captive from Israel on Oct. 7 are believed to have been held there.
Israeli officials would not definitely say whether the escalation represents the start of the anticipated major ground incursion aimed at “destroying Hamas.” But indications mounted that the military was ready for a sustained push.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, in a video release, said Israel had “completed a phase in the war,” and will now continue expanded ground activity in the Gaza Strip until further notice.
“The objectives of this war require a ground operation, the best soldiers are now operating in Gaza,” Chief of Staff Gen. Herzi Halevi said. Netanyahu warned Saturday night that the war would be “long and difficult.”
The ground campaign likely marks the beginning of a prolonged and destructive war that could have far-reaching implications for Israelis, Palestinians and the wider Middle East. With Israeli and Hezbollah exchanging fire across the Lebanese border with growing frequency, the brutality of the Gaza fight could spark a wider conflict.
“For years there have been warnings about the potential for a multi-front war. If this is the beginning of one, the potential death and destruction may top anything we’ve seen in decades,” said Jonathan Panikoff, director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council. “The coming days and weeks are likely not only going to drive the future of Israel’s security, but they may well also drive the future of its place in the region.”
The prolonged ground fighting in Gaza comes as other governments have asked Israel to hold off on its final assault on Hamas positions — and to pause its air assault — to stave off the ballooning humanitarian crisis and negotiate the release of additional Israelis held by Hamas.
Aid groups, struggling to make contact with their teams inside of Gaza, reported life-threatening conditions as Gaza’s infrastructure and health networks crumbled. Witnesses, those who could hold a signal from cell towers outside the enclave, said most ambulances could not pass through ruined streets and people were carrying the dead and injured by foot.
“Now there is a new bombing,” Palestinian journalist Anas Al-Shariff said in a text Saturday to The Washington Post. “There are entire families still under the rubble.”
The World Health Organization said many health workers had spent the night in darkness and the lack of communications kept first responders from finding the injured.
“Morgues are full. More than half of the dead are women and children,” the group said in a statement.
Hatem Omar, a journalist who has worked for numerous international outlets, was able to send text messages to The Post after connecting to cellphone towers outside of southern Gaza. He described “queues of people in front of bakeries, water and fuel stations, and thousands of citizens at electricity distribution points. Israel has entered the second phase of its battle in Gaza. Communications are still completely stopped … the suffering is worsening.”
Several governments called for Israel to heed a U.N. General Assembly vote Friday for an immediate cease fire and humanitarian corridor for aid and evacuations. Israel, however, denounced the resolution for failing to mention Hamas and the Oct. 7 surprise attacks that killed more than 1,400 Israelis, most of the civilians.
In Israel, the military tighten control of areas outside of Gaza. News crews set up on an overlook on the Israeli side of the border fence less than a mile from Beit Hanoun in the northeast corner of the enclave. Jets roared overhead and artillery units fired into the enclave. Machine gunfire rang out.
“This is a closed military zone,” said a soldier at on a side road that led to some of the Kibbutzim hit on Oct. 7. Beyond, tanks kicked up dust on the road.
While many Israelis had televisions and phones turned off during the sabbath, families of the more than 220 hostages taken by Hamas on Oct. 7 gathered in Tel Aviv to demand information from the government. Many were outraged that the ground and air operations had expanded dramatically even as reports of progress in the negotiations had begun to circulate.
Israeli officials had dismissed those claims, telling local media that they viewed Hamas as dragging its feet on the talks as a delaying tactic.
But an organization of hostage families expressed outrage, setting up a vigil outside of Israel Defense Forces headquarters in Tel Aviv and vowing not to disband until granted a meeting with Netanyahu. Some held signs that read “POW exchange now” and “At any cost.”
“We expect the Prime Minister and Defense Minister to meet with us today, look us in the eye, and give a clear answer to the question: Does the escalation of military activity in Gaza endanger the well-being of the 229 hostages?” the Hostages and Missing Families Forum said in a statement.
Members of the group said they were awake through the night following reports of massive explosions throughout Gaza. There were different views on the stepped-up attack, with many furious at the increased risk to the family members and others hoping it would destroy Hamas and lead to a rescue.
“I’m not afraid of what my government does in Gaza,” said Ayelet Samerano, whose 21-year-old son was taken. “I’m afraid of what Hamas can do to Israel.”
Late Saturday, Netanyahu acceded to their demands and met a group of the families for two hours.
“We said blunt and clear things,” Meirav Leshem Gonen, the mother of a 23-year-old women taken captive at the dance party, said after the meeting. “The operational considerations must take into account the fate of the hostages.”
The IDF said Saturday they downed a surface-to-air missile fired from inside Lebanon at an IDF drone and fired at the launch site. Earlier, IDF jets struck a Hezbollah military structure, which had fired missiles toward Israel that landed in Syria.
William Booth contributed from Jerusalem. Loveday Morris contributed from southern Israel. Kevin Sieff contributed from Tel Aviv. Hajar Harb contributed from London.