Live updates | Israel knocks out Gaza communications as protesters call for end to the war

Israel launched an expanded ground operation on Saturday after creating a near-blackout of communication in the Gaza Strip with increased bombardment and artillery fire overnight. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a war for Israel’s existence, and said “Never again is now.”

Gaza residents described the massive bombardment from the land, air and sea as the most intense of the 3-week-old Israel-Hamas war. Other countries, United Nations officials and aid agencies described a dire situation in Gaza, where 2.3 million people are cut off from the outside world and ambulances without cellphone or radio service chase the sound of artillery to locate the wounded.

The Palestinian death toll passed 7,700, most of them women and children, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza. In the occupied West Bank, more than 110 Palestinians have been killed in violence and Israeli raids.

More than 1,400 people were slain in Israel during a surprise incursion by Hamas militants, including at least 310 soldiers, according to the Israeli government. At least 229 hostages were taken into Gaza, and four hostages have been released.

Currently:

    1. Spider web of Hamas tunnels raises risks for Israeli ground offensive in Gaza Strip

    2. Mass graves, unclaimed bodies and overcrowded cemeteries replace funeral rites

    3. AP Photos: Scenes of sorrow and despair on both sides of Israel-Gaza border on week 3 of war

    4. Jewish and Muslim chaplains navigate tensions on US college campuses

    5. UN General Assembly calls for `humanitarian truce’ in Gaza leading to halt in Israel-Hamas fighting.

    6. Find more of AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war.

Here’s what is happening in the latest Israel-Hamas war:

LAS VEGAS — Republican presidential candidates are professing unbridled support for Israel in speeches to an influential GOP Jewish group in Las Vegas. The campaign stop came as Israel entered a new phase of its war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Former Vice President Mike Pence suspended his campaign and used his last speech as a candidate to called on Democratic President Joe Biden to unconditionally support Israel’s response to a Hamas attack that killed more than 1,000 Israelis.

Candidates Tim Scott and Vivek Ramaswamy also said Israel’s right to defend itself is unequivocal. Former President Donald Trump still leads the GOP contenders, and was expected to address the Republican Jewish Coalition later Saturday.

JERUSALEM — Hamas’s top leader in Gaza Yehiyeh Sinwar said the Palestinian militant groups are ready to release Israeli hostages in return for Palestinian prisoners in Israel’s jails.

“We are ready immediately to have an exchange deal that includes releasing all prisoners in the prisons of the Zionist occupation enemy in return for the release of all prisoners held by the resistance,” he said in a comment posted Saturday evening on Hamas media groups.

The Israeli military spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, dismissed the offer as “psychological terror” andsaid Israel is working on multiple channels to free the hostages.

JERUSALEM — One of the biggest threats to both Israeli troops and the 2.3 million Palestinians trapped in the Gaza Strip is buried deep underground.

Israel’s military said Saturday that its warplanes struck 150 underground Hamas targets in northern Gaza, including tunnels, combat spaces and other infrastructure. But the extensive labyrinth of tunnels built by Hamas is believed to stretch for hundreds of miles (kilometers), hiding fighters, an arsenal of rockets and now more than 200 Israeli hostages.

Clearing and collapsing those tunnels is crucial to dismantling Hamas. But Israeli’s military could be at a serious disadvantage underground. Urban warfare experts say the militants can be hiding in millions of places, choosing when and where to ambush their enemies.

Former Israeli soldier Ariel Bernstein described urban combat in northern Gaza as a mix of ambushes, traps, hideouts and snipers in tunnels so disorienting that it was like he was fighting ghosts.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the war against Hamas will be “long and difficult,” calling it a battle of good versus evil and a struggle for Israel’s existence.

Netanyahu told the nation in a televised news conference Saturday night that Israel has opened a “new phase” in the war – by sending ground forces into Gaza and expanding attacks from the ground, air and sea. He said these activities would only increase as Israel prepares for a broad ground invasion.

The goal, he said, is the complete destruction of Hamas.

“We always said, ‘Never again,’” he said. “Never again is now.”

A Palestinian militant group in Gaza said it fired barrage of rockets Saturday evening on Tel Aviv and on Ashkelon and Ashdod in southern Israel. The rockets by Al-Quds Brigades, the military arm of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, was the latest in a series of rocket attacks on Israel on Saturday.

Israeli forces continued a relentless bombardment. One Israeli airstrike late Saturday afternoon damaged the Indonesian hospital in Beit Lahia, according to freelance journalist Anas al-Sharif, one of the few journalists in Gaza able to connect to the outside world. He shared images of the hospital’s damaged roof.

The Israeli strikes caused a blackout that cut off telecommunications and internet access for Gaza’s 2.3 million people, disrupting ambulances and aid groups in the besieged strip and enabling the Israeli military to control the narrative in the new stage of fighting.

Earlier Saturday, Israeli videos showed columns of armored vehicles moving slowly in open, sandy areas of Gaza, the first visual confirmation of ground troops.

PARIS — Police encircled hundreds of people who defied a ban on a pro-Palestinian demonstration Saturday in central Paris. The officers tried to contain the protest but fired tear gas when tensions rose as a breakaway group tried to march.

The protest collective known as Urgence Palestine called for a cease-fire in the increasingly intense war between Israel and Hamas. At least 80 people were given citations, according to French media. Other pro-Palestinian demonstrations were held in Marseille and Strasbourg in the east.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin’s order to ban pro-Palestinian demonstrations in France was trimmed back by the nation’s highest administrative authority. The Council of State ruled any protests in favor of either side in the war are to be authorized on a case-by-case basis after assessing risks to public order.

Demonstrations also took place Saturday in London, Indonesia, Pakistan, Italy, Norway and Switzerland, and a crowd of protesters filled New York City’s Grand Central Station Friday night, many wearing black T-shirts saying “Jews say cease-fire now” and “Not in our name.”

JERUSALEM — As Israeli airstrikes and an intensified ground attack pounded northern Gaza on Saturday, a representative for the families of the hostages held by Hamas told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu they support a prisoner swap.

“As far as the families are concerned, a deal of a return of our family members immediately in the framework of “all for all” is feasible, and there will be wide national support for this,” said MeIrav Gonen, the representative. Her daughter, RoMi, is one of the hostages.

Israel’s government has not yet commented on Hamas’s offer to free all the hostages in exchange for Israel releasing all Palestinians held in Israeli jails. It was unclear if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed the possibility of a prisoner swap during the meeting with the families, or if he specified any military or diplomatic plan to achieve the release of hostages.

Israel’s military has said it will be able to continue its devastating campaign on Gaza while rescuing the hostages, and has dismissed the possibility of a Hamas-proposed cease-fire deal in exchange for their release. Spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Saturday that by proposing the cease-fire, Hamas was engaged in a “cynical exploitation” of their famililes’ anxieties.

TEL AVIV, Israel — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said he told representatives of the families of hostages that Israel will exhaust every possibility to bring them home.

The Israeli military says Hamas militants kidnapped more than 200 people on Oct. 7 and took them into a network of tunnels inside the densely populated Gaza Strip. In the night from Friday to Saturday, Israeli war planes bombed Hamas tunnels and underground bunkers in dozens of strikes, heightening the concerns of relatives of hostages over the fate of their loved ones.

Netanyahu and his wife Sara told the families in Tel Aviv that getting abductees released is one of the goals of the war and that the greater the pressure, the greater the chances for bringing them home.

Hundreds of family members had demonstrated in Tel Aviv earlier Saturday, expressing fears that military leaders are being cavalier with the lives of the hostages. “The families feel like they’re they’re left behind and no one is really caring about them,” said Miki Haimovitz, a former lawmaker.

CAIRO — U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has reiterated his appeal for an immediate humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza, the unconditional release of hostages and a delivery of humanitarian aid the strip’s 2.3 million people.

“This situation must be reversed,” he said Saturday in a statement following his meeting in Doha with Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al-Thani. “This is the moment of truth. Everyone must assume their responsibilities. History will judge us all.”

He warned that the ongoing escalation, including relentless Israeli bombardment and a communication blackout, would have devastating impacts and undermine “the referred humanitarian objectives.”

CAIRO — Oman’s Foreign Ministry says Israel’s siege and bombardment of Gaza amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The Omani ministry said in a statement that a wide-scale Israeli ground invasion of Gaza would have “serious catastrophic consequences on the region and the world, and the prospects of achieving peace and stability.”

Oman has a long record of serving as a key broker between Iran and the West when regional tensions flare.

The ministry called for the international community to immediately intervene to stop the Israel-Hamas war and to speed humanitarian aid deliveries to Gaza.

BEIRUT — A top Hamas official said Saturday that by shutting down most communications, Israel aims to prevent “the truth” about what is happening in the Gaza Strip from reaching the world.

Speaking to reporters in Beirut, Ghazi Hamad said Israel has made “baseless claims and lies” about Hamas militants hiding in tunnels under the Al Shifa hospital in Gaza “to justify the targeting of the hospital.”

He said that Israel has forced Palestinians south with plans to try to push them to move to Egypt.

“We strongly reject that and say that our Palestinians will stay in their land,” Hamad said.

But he called on the international community to allow humanitarian aid to reach Gaza from Egypt, specifically medical equipment and fuel.

Meanwhile, Hamas’ military arm, Qassam Brigades, said Saturday afternoon it fired a barrage of rockets on Dimona, a southern Israeli city on the edge of the Negev Desert.

ISTANBUL — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a mass pro-Palestinian rally in Istanbul on Saturday that his country was making preparations to proclaim Israel a “war criminal” for its actions in Gaza.

In his address to hundreds of thousands of people who joined the rally, Erdogan also held Western countries responsible for failing to stop Israel’s attacks. “Israel, we will proclaim you as a war criminal to the world,” he said.

Erdogan, whose government recently restored full diplomatic ties with Israel, has asserted that the Hamas militant group was not a terrorist organization but a liberation group fighting for its lands and people.

Yusuf Islam, the musician formerly known as Cat Stevens, took part in the rally, where people waved Turkish and Palestinian flags, chanting “God is great.”

CAIRO — The U.N. human rights chief said Israel’s overnight intense air and ground bombardment has taken the crisis in Gaza to “a new level of violence and pain.”

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk’s comments came in a statement Saturday as Gaza remained cut off from the outside world following a communication blackout.

He said the communication blackout has added to the misery and suffering of civilians in the Palestinian territory, with ambulances and civil defense teams no longer able to locate the wounded.

The humanitarian and human rights consequences will be devastating and long-lasting,” Turk said. “Given the manner in which military operations have been conducted until now, in the context of the 56-year-old occupation, I am raising alarm about the possibly catastrophic consequences of large-scale ground operations in Gaza and the potential for thousands more civilians to die.”

JERUSALEM — The chief of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees wrote a public letter to his staff in Gaza, expressing “immense worry” for their safety amid a near-total communications blackout.

“I am constantly hoping that this hell on earth will soon come to an end and that you and your families are safe,” Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the UNRWA agency. “You are the face of humanity during one of its darkest hours.”

He said his staff was working around the clock to secure his entry into the Gaza Strip but that since Israel knocked out communications there he could only communicate with some of staff members by satellite phone.

JERUSALEM — Israel’s military says it is striking Hezbollah military infrastructure in Lebanon after “several anti-tank missile and mortar shell launches were identified from Lebanese territory toward Israel,” including Israeli military posts along the Israel-Lebanon border.

Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency said a shell fired by Israeli troops hit the wall surrounding the headquarters of the U.N. peacekeeping force in the Lebanese coastal border town of Naqoura.

Andrea Tenenti, a spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping force known as UNIFIL, confirmed that the shell only caused some damage and no injuries.

There has been concern that the Israel-Hamas war could expand into Lebanon and northern Israel if Hezbollah decides to join the conflict.

JERUSALEM — Israel’s military once again ordered Palestinians in northern Gaza and Gaza City to move south as its troops expand their ground offensive.

“For your immediate safety, we urge all residents of northern Gaza and Gaza City to relocate south immediately,” Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, a military spokesperson, said in a video message posted on X. “This is a temporary measure. Moving back to northern Gaza will be possible once the intense hostilities end.”

Israel’s military also dropped leaflets over northern Gaza telling residents that the area has become a warzone.

The Israeli military estimated that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in northern Gaza moved south since the beginning of the war. But tens of thousands returned amid relentless Israeli airstrikes in Gaza’s southern areas.

BEIRUT — The Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza said 377 people have been killed since Israel expanded its large ground offensive on Friday evening.

Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qedra told reporters Saturday that Israel “totally paralyzed” the health network in Gaza by cutting off internet and cellular service.

“Israel has turned Gaza into pieces of fire,” al-Qedra said, adding that the bombardment is the most intense since Hamas’ deadly incursion in southern Israel three weeks ago.

Al-Qedra said the 377 people killed in the past day raises the death total in the Gaza to 7,703 people, including 3,195 children and 1,863 women.

He called on people in Gaza to donate blood, requested delivery of all blood types from the International committee of the Red Cross and urged the opening of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt to allow medical supplies and fuel to enter and the evacuation of seriously wounded people.

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