IDF announces expanded ground operation in Gaza, amid communications blackout in the enclave

Israeli airstrikes rocked Gaza during a night of heavy bombardment after the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said Friday it is “expanding ground operations” in the besieged enclave, where communications links have reportedly been severed.

In a statement Saturday, the IDF said its warplanes hit 150 underground targets in northern Gaza overnight, striking what it called terror tunnels and underground combat spaces and killing several Hamas operatives.

Among those killed was Asem Abu Rakaba, the man in charge of Hamas’ aerial assets, who had taken part in planning the October 7 attacks on Israel and “directed the terrorists who infiltrated Israel on paragliders,” the IDF said.

The IDF is “operating forcefully” on all fronts and will “continue striking Gaza City,” IDF spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Friday, repeating previous warnings that civilians should evacuate as he announced the intensified ground operation.

Gaza residents told CNN that the evening’s airstrikes were the most intense they have experienced since Israel began to retaliate against Hamas’ October 7 terror attack around three weeks ago.

Speaking to CNN by phone from near Gaza’s Al Aqsa Martyrs Hospital, one eyewitness, Salem Ahmad Ammar, told CNN that he and his wife had decided to separate in hopes that one would survive to care for their kids.

“Don’t know if I (will) live to see the daylight tomorrow morning,” Ammar said. “I split from my wife, and the kids went to her parents’ house, and I came to the hospital here in the event we die in different places and maybe one of us would live and our kids will live. Difficult choices we are making.”

A substantial ground offensive has been expected ever since the attacks, in which Hamas killed more than 1,400 people and saw some 200 people taken to Gaza as hostages. However, it is not yet clear whether the IDF announcement of an expanded operation signals the start of that push.

Mark Regev, senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told CNN that an “expansion” of ground operations in Gaza means Israel’s army is “beefing up the pressure on Hamas.” He told CNN’s Jake Tapper “that pressure will increase and continue to increase until we achieve our goal.”

This is the third night of Israeli ground actions in Gaza, as it amasses thousands of troops on the border with the enclave. It comes after weeks of bombardment and blockading Gaza, precipitating what aid agencies call a humanitarian crisis.

Hamas has vowed to retaliate if Israeli ground troops enter Gaza. Izzat al-Rishq, a senior member of the Hamas political bureau, vowed that Hamas is ready to defeat Israeli soldiers if they enter the territory.

Ghazi Hamad, a senior Hamas official, told the Associated Press on Thursday that Hezbollah and other allies were expected to play a bigger role as the Israel-Hamas war rages. “Hezbollah now is working against the occupation,” he said, adding a rare public appeal: “We appreciate this. But … we need more in order to stop the aggression on Gaza … We expect more.”

Concerns have risen that Israel’s army may target Gaza hospitals after it alleged that the enclave’s largest medical center, Al Shifa, is the site of a Hamas command and control center – a claim that Palestinian authorities in Gaza and Ramallah, as well as doctors at the hospital, have denied.

Hagari claimed Hamas of directing rocket attacks and commanding Hamas operations from bunkers underneath the hospital building, and appeared to suggest such hospitals could be on Israel’s target list. “When medical facilities are used for terror purposes, they are liable to lose their protection from attack in accordance with international law,” Hagari said.

The Director General of the Gaza Health Ministry, Dr. Medhat Abbas, told CNN’s Eleni Giokos that Gaza’s hospitals, “are used to treat patients only” and are not being used “to hide anyone.” Hamas also rejected the claim, calling on “the United Nations, Arab and Islamic countries to immediately intervene to stop the madness of bombing and destroying the medical system.”

Mustafa Barghouti of the Palestine National Initiative based in Ramallah said Israel was lying. “They keep lying to justify criminal acts against a civilian population, now they want to justify attacking people in a hospital” he told Sky News.

And Mads Gilbert, a Norwegian physician who has worked at the Shifa hospital on several occasions, including during three periods of open hostilities between Hamas and Israel, called the allegations “old.”

“We heard these unsubstantiated claims during the 2009 and 2014 attacks. We have never seen any single sign or proof, we’ve had zero restrictions on filming and photographing in Shifa, and have never been controlled in any ways,” he told CNN.

‘The world is facing a historic moment’

The intensified bombardment began Friday evening, local time. A CNN team on the ground in southern Israel, close to the border with Gaza, reported a series of large explosions rocking Gaza City in the north of the enclave, and “unusual, intense and sustained” military activity and hearing heavy machine gunfire.

Gaza appears largely cut off from the world, with communications in the enclave badly disrupted by airstrikes, according to Palestinian telecoms company Jawwal. London-based monitoring firm NetBlocks has also reported that the last standing major internet operator in the region, Paltel, has experienced damage to its international routes.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh accused Israel of cutting communications and internet to Gaza on Friday in an “attempt to create darkness so that crimes can be committed” in preparation for an IDF ground operation.

“The world is facing a historic moment” Shtayyeh told CNN, and called on the global community to act to stop “aggression and massacres” to come.

Several aid organizations and UN agencies say they have now lost contact with local staff in Gaza.

Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the organization had been unable to communicate with its staff and “health facilities, health workers and the rest of our humanitarian partners on the ground.”

Catherine Russell, executive director of UNICEF, said on X, formerly Twitter, that she is “extremely concerned” about her team in Gaza after losing touch with them. “All humanitarians and the children and families they serve MUST be protected,” Russell added.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders, said it had lost contact with some Palestinian colleagues in Gaza, while the International Committee of the Red Cross said it was “deeply worried” for the safety of its staff and civilians.

“Without information in a communication blackout, people don’t know where to go for safety. Blackouts impede humanitarian and medical personnel from working safely and effectively,” the Red Cross said.

International news agencies also expressed concern after the IDF said it cannot guarantee the safety of journalists reporting from Gaza, Reuters reported on Friday.

At least 29 journalists have been killed during the Israel-Hamas war since October 7, making it the deadliest period for reporters covering conflict in decades, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The continuous bombardment of Gaza since hostilities broke out after the bloody October 7 attack has led to a crisis in the impoverished and densely-populated enclave.

More than 2 million people are affected, the UN Relief Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) – the main UN agency in Gaza – warned on Friday, adding that amid food and water shortages, sewage is overflowing on the streets. More than 7,300 people have been killed and 18,500 more injured in Israeli attacks on Gaza since October 7, according to figures released Friday by the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Ramallah drawn from sources in the Hamas-controlled enclave.

The ministry says children, women and the elderly make up 70% of those killed.

Fifty-three UN staffers have also been killed since fighting began, with 14 dead in the past 24 hours, according to an UNRWA statement Friday.

Gaza hospitals have been forced to work with dwindling resources and power shortages; eyewitnesses at Al Aqsa Martyrs hospital said on Friday the institution had been plunged into darkness.

One eyewitness said Gaza has been “left in the dark with no connection to the outside world,” adding the hospital has received the bodies of 11 people killed and dozens injured from the intensified bombardment. They expect casualties to rise.

Explosions are seen near the Israel-Gaza border, October 27, 2023. - Reuters
Explosions are seen near the Israel-Gaza border, October 27, 2023. - Reuters

Another eyewitness, Alla Majhool, said she came to the hospital because her 4-year-old niece was injured in a previous strike.

“I am terrified and shaking, I can’t call my family and sisters to check on them, all we hear is explosions,” Majhool said. “It’s dark and there are no communications, we don’t know where the airstrikes and artillery shelling is hitting.”

The Palestine Red Crescent Society said it has “completely lost contact with the operations room in Gaza and all our teams operating there.”

Phillipe Lazzarini, the head of UNRWA said earlier on Friday that while aid has begun to trickle into Gaza from Egypt through the Rafah crossing, deliveries so far amounted to “nothing more than crumbs.”

Efforts to free hostages ongoing

As the intensified bombardment began, Jordanian foreign minister Ayman Safadi urged nations to vote for a UN resolution calling for a halt to the fighting, saying on social media that the outcome of any Israeli ground operation “will be a humanitarian catastrophe of epic proportions for years to come.”

“Millions will be watching every vote,” he said. “History will judge.”

An overwhelming majority of 120 nations voted for the resolution, which calls for an immediate cessation of hostilities in the war between Israel and Hamas and for aid to be allowed to flow unrestricted into Gaza. The US and Israel sharply criticized the resolution text, however, for not explicitly criticizing Hamas.

Israel’s ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan asked the assembly, “Why are you defending murderers?”

“Israel just endured the largest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust, and according to a majority of the so-called family of nations, Israel has no right to defend itself,” he said.

Israel’s expanded ground operation comes amid ongoing efforts to free hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. Earlier on Friday, a source touted “significant progress” in negotiations.

When asked about a possible deal, IDF spokesperson Hagari told reporters to “disregard rumors.” He dismissed reports that a hostage deal was close to being brokered as “psychological terror and a cynical use of Israeli civilians by Hamas.”

The White House said it would not be appropriate to weigh in on Israel’s expanded military campaign.

“We have, of course, certainly seen Israel undertake varied operations on the ground in the last couple of days,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Friday. “But again, we’re not going to get into the habit of chiming in from the sidelines here on what they’re trying to do on the ground.”

Kirby declined to say if Israel had informed the US before launching an expanded ground operation into Gaza Friday. He also declined to say if the Biden administration has confidence that Israel has fully considered the ramifications of a ground incursion.

But Kirby said the US had held “active conversations” with Israel about a humanitarian pause to allow for the release of hostages. “We are working as hard today as we were yesterday and the day before and the day before to get these hostages home,” Kirby told CNN.

This story is developing and will be updated.

CNN’s Jeremy Diamond, Andrew Carey, Ibrahim Dhaman, Jonny Hallam, Kevin Liptak, DJ Judd, Priscilla Alvarez and Sam Fossum contributed reporting.

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