Ground battles rage in Gaza after Israel escalates bombing

Gaza Strip (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) – Israel’s war on Gaza militants will be “long and difficult”, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Saturday as Hamas demanded the release of all Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the hostages it seized three weeks ago.

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The United Nations warned thousands more civilians could die in Gaza as Israel said ground forces were still operating inside the Hamas-run territory more than 24 hours after entering it on Friday.

And the head of the international Red Cross appealed for an end to the “intolerable” suffering of Gaza’s civilians.

Israel unleashed a massive bombing campaign after Hamas gunmen stormed across the Gaza border on October 7, killing 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and seizing more than 220 hostages, according to Israeli officials.

The Hamas-controlled health ministry in Gaza said Israeli strikes had since killed 7,703 people, mainly civilians, with more than 3,500 of them children.

Israel's latest raids are among the most intense since the war began
Israel’s latest raids are among the most intense since the war began © Aris MESSINIS / AFP

The conflict is the fifth and deadliest in Gaza since Israel unilaterally withdrew troops and settlers from the Palestinian territory in 2005.

UN human rights chief Volker Turk warned of “the possibly catastrophic consequences of large-scale ground operations in Gaza”, saying “thousands more civilians” could die.

Mirjana Spoljaric, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, appealed Saturday for all sides to de-escalate the conflict.

“It is unacceptable that civilians have no safe place to go in Gaza amid the massive bombardments, and with a military siege in place there is also no adequate humanitarian response currently possible,” she said.

“This is a catastrophic failing that the world must not tolerate.”

‘New phase in the war’

The intense strikes against Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, provided cover for Israeli ground forces to step up operations.

“Since early Friday evening, combined combat forces of armour, combat engineers and infantry have been operating on the ground in the northern Gaza Strip,” the army said late Saturday.

Israeli strikes have flattened many buildings in Gaza
Israeli strikes have flattened many buildings in Gaza © SAID KHATIB / AFP

Israel has massed tens of thousands of troops along the Gaza border raising expectations of a full-blown invasion, with its soldiers making limited ground incursions on Wednesday and Thursday.

“This is the second stage of the war whose goals are clear: destroying the military and leadership capabilities of Hamas, and bringing the hostages back home,” Netanyahu told journalists.

“The war in the (Gaza) Strip will be long and difficult and we are prepared for it,” he said, describing an “existential test” for Israel.

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant earlier said “we’ve entered a new phase in the war”.

Northern Gaza
Northern Gaza © Simon MALFATTO / AFP

He added: “We attacked above the ground and below the ground,” alluding to the network of tunnels Hamas has built under Gaza.

Israeli fighter jets dropped leaflets over Gaza City warning residents that the area was now a “battlefield”, that shelters in northern Gaza were not safe, and they should “evacuate immediately” to the south.

The army delivered similar warnings earlier in its campaign, but many who fled south ended up returning home after failing to find refuge from Israeli bombing.

‘Price to pay’

Hamas’s armed wing said it was ready to release the hostages it abducted if Israel freed all the Palestinian prisoners it was holding.

“The price to pay for the large number of enemy hostages in our hands is to empty the (Israeli) prisons of all Palestinian prisoners,” Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades spokesman Abu Obeida said.

“If the enemy wants to close this file of detainees in one go, we are ready for it. If it wants to do it step by step, we are ready for that too,” he added.

More than 220 hostages are being held by Hamas, according to Israeli officials
More than 220 hostages are being held by Hamas, according to Israeli officials © JACK GUEZ / AFP

Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, said the group stood ready to make an “immediate” exchange.

Some 230 hostages are being held in Gaza, according to the Israeli army, with officials saying dozens of them are foreigners or dual nationals.

Earlier this week, the Brigades said “almost 50” of the hostages had been killed in Israeli strikes.

Facing increasing anger over the fate of the captives as Israel steps up its war on Hamas, Netanyahu met representatives of hostage relatives on Saturday.

The latest Israeli raids were among the most intense since the war began and coincided with ground operations
The latest Israeli raids were among the most intense since the war began and coincided with ground operations © Aris MESSINIS / AFP

Ifat Kalderon, whose cousin Ofer Kalderon is believed to be held in Gaza along with members of his family, told AFP she supported the idea of a prisoner release in exchange for the hostages.

“Take them, we don’t need them here. I want my family and all the hostages to come back home,” she said.

Netanyahu made no commitment to any exchange deal but assured hostage families Israel would “exhaust every option to bring them home”.

Communications blackout

Overnight, hundreds of buildings and houses were completely destroyed and thousands damaged, Gaza officials said.

Amid the rubble in Shati refugee camp in northern Gaza, Alaa Mahdi likened the destruction to that of an “earthquake”.

“If it were a natural earthquake, it would have been much easier than what happened last night,” he said.

Hamas retaliated with fresh rocket fire, which wounded three people in central Israel.

Billionaire Elon Musk said his Starlink satellite service would support internet access for “internationally recognised aid organisations in Gaza” a day after communications and phone networks were cut across Gaza.

People leave their vehicles to take cover during a rocket attack along a main road in Tel Aviv
People leave their vehicles to take cover during a rocket attack along a main road in Tel Aviv © GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP

The Palestinian Red Crescent said this was affecting emergency calls and critical ambulance sorties. Human Rights Watch warned it could provide “cover for mass atrocities”.

Starlink is a network of satellites in low Earth orbit that can provide internet to remote locations, or areas where normal comms infrastructure has been disabled.

‘Stop this madness’

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell demanded a “pause of hostilities” to allow aid into Gaza, after the UN General Assembly called for an “immediate humanitarian truce”.

The non-binding resolution on Friday received overwhelming support, but Israel and the United States criticised it for failing to mention Hamas.

Israel's bombardment has displaced more than 1.4 million people inside Gaza, according to the UN
Israel’s bombardment has displaced more than 1.4 million people inside Gaza, according to the UN © SAID KHATIB / AFP

Addressing several hundred thousand pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Istanbul on Saturday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said “the main culprit behind the massacre unfolding in Gaza is the West”.

His comments prompted Israel to recall all of its diplomats from Turkey.

Israel’s military campaign has displaced more than 1.4 million people inside Gaza, according to the UN, more than half of its 2.4 million inhabitants.

Supplies of food, water and power to the crowded territory have been almost completely cut off.

Between the bombardments and the fuel shortages, 12 of Gaza’s 35 hospitals have been forced to close and the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said it has had to “significantly reduce its operations”.

Violence has also risen sharply in the occupied West Bank since the October 7 attacks, with more than 100 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces or settlers, according to the UN.

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