Oct. 28 (UPI) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Saturday troops have entered the Gaza Strip as part of an expanded ground assault in what he called Israel's "second war of independence."
In a late-night press briefing held with Defense Minister Yoav Galant and National Unity Party Chairman Benny Gantz at the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu confirmed that Israeli ground forces, which had skirmished with the Palestinian militant group Hamas over the past few days, have now entered Gaza in full force.
The Israeli Defense Forces have "entered Gaza, marking the beginning of the second stage of the war. We have decided to expand the ground offensive," he said.
The Israeli leader vowed to "settle the score" with Hamas, which killed 1,400 Israelis and took more than 200 hostages in a surprise, multi-pronged attack on Oct. 7.
"We are only at the beginning of the road," he said, cautioning the war "will be tough and long." But, he added, "we are prepared for it. This is our second war of independence. This is our mission, our purpose in life, and together we will prevail."
הצטרפו לשידור החי: ראש הממשלה בנימין נתניהו, שר הבטחון יואב גלנט, והשר בני גנץ מקיימים מסיבת עיתונאים משותפת, בקריה בתל אביב. https://t.co/cZn88wdghI— ראש ממשלת ישראל (@IsraeliPM_heb) October 28, 2023
Gallant earlier on Saturday confirmed that Israel has entered into a "new stage" of its war against Hamas militants in Gaza, saying in a video message that the IDF had "attacked above and bellow ground, struck terrorists of all ranks and in all places" late Friday into Saturday morning, likely indicating that a long-anticipated ground assault into Gaza Strip had begun.
"I completed a situation assessment," he said. "Last night we accomplished [completed] a phase in the war. We will continue to be strong and precise. And hunt down every terrorist," he said, adding, "The ground shook in Gaza last night."
The comments came as the IDF unleashed some of its heaviest bombardments of Gaza yet in its war against Hamas.
Israeli jets attacked about 150 underground targets in the northern Gaza Strip during the night, the IDF said, claiming the strikes killed several Hamas fighters and destroyed combat tunnels, underground combat spaces and other "underground terrorist infrastructures."
The IDF said its naval forces also attacked targets used by Hamas overnight, including observation posts, anti-tank launching positions and a military installation that assisted the ground forces.
Israel released footage of what it claimed were armored columns rolling into the Gaza Strip.
The IDF claimed that Asem Abu Rakaba, described as the chief of Hamas' aerial forces, was slain during the assaults. The military said he was in charge of the terror group's UAVs, drones, paragliders and aerial detection, took part in the planning the Oct. 7 massacre of Israeli civilians and "commanded the terrorists who infiltrated Israel on paragliders and was responsible for the drone attacks on IDF posts."
More than 7,300 Palestinians have died since Israel launched retaliatory strikes in the wake of the bloody Hamas offensive on Oct. 7, according to figures released Friday by the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry.
As the ground invasion appeared to be getting underway, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke with Gallant to "discuss Israel's operations in Gaza."
According to a Defense Department statement, Austin "underscored the importance of protecting civilians during the Israel Defense Forces' operations and focusing on the urgency of humanitarian aid delivery for civilians in Gaza" in his talks with Gallant.
The conversation also focused on "the need for Hamas to release all of the hostages."
Even as Israel sent forces into the Gaza, its military also continued to battle with Hezbollah forces along its northern border in Lebanon.
The IDF struck targets in Lebanon on Saturday in response to a rocket barrage fired from Lebanon toward an Israeli military position in the Misgav Am area and the Bedouin town of Arab el-Aramshe, the Jerusalem Post reported.
Meanwhile in Istanbul, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a massive pro-Palestinian rally on Saturday that Israel was an occupier and reiterated comments made earlier this week that Hamas is not a terrorist organization.
"What was Gaza, Palestine in 1947, what is it today? Israel, how did you get here? How did you get in? You are an invader," the Turkish president said. "It is the West that is most responsible for the massacre in Gaza. The massacre in Gaza is entirely the work of the West."
"As I said, Hamas is not a terrorist organization, Israel was very disturbed by this," Erdogan said. "Since we knew this, we stated it clearly."
The remarks prompted Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen to announce he is recalling diplomats from Ankara.
"Given the grave statements coming from Turkey, I have ordered the return of diplomatic representatives there in order to conduct a reevaluation of the relations between Israel and Turkey," he said in a post on X.