Israel “moved to a new phase” in the war against Hamas as its tanks, armoured vehicles and infantry launched an expanded ground operation in Gaza.
Soldiers supported by artillery and naval and air strikes pushed south after gaining a foothold in the northern part of the Gaza Strip following an initial major incursion overnight on Friday.
The air force also dropped leaflets over Gaza City and surrounding areas warning civilians to “evacuate immediately” to the south as the area was now a “battlefield”.
Israeli army spokesman Daniel Hagari also made an “urgent plea” for people to evacuate, adding that they can return home once the “intense hostilities end”. He said: “Your window to act is closing. Move south for your own safety.”
And last night Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared the ground offensive as “the second stage of the war”. Speaking in Tel Aviv, he said Israeli forces are in “that stronghold of evil” and the aims “are very clear – to destroy the military and government ability of Hamas and return the victims home”.
But he added: “Don’t accuse us of war crimes. If you think you can accuse our soldiers of war crimes, that is hypocrisy. We are the most moral army in the world.”
While he did not name him, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had earlier accused Israel of war crimes at a rally.
Mr Netanyahu added that Israel is “ready to make sure that the murderers are going to pay the price for the massacred” and is “going to abolish this evil in order to further all humanity”. “We always said, ‘Never Again’. Never Again’ is now.” But he warned: “If Israel is not going to win today, they are going to be next in the axis of evil… That’s the beginning of the war. The war inside Gaza is going to be long.
“This is our second independence war. We’re going to save our country.
“We’re going to fight in the air, ground and we are going to fight and win.”
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Overnight on Friday Israeli jets and drones carried out 150 strikes on Hamas’s extensive tunnel network.
Phone and internet links were knocked out, cutting off the besieged enclave’s 2.3 million people from the world. The BBC’s Rushdi Abualouf, one of the few journalists reporting from the territory, described the scenes as “total chaos”. And Shehab Younis, a photographer in Gaza, said the “situation is catastrophic”.
The expansion of the ground assault brought an all-out invasion one step closer. Hundreds of thousands of Israeli troops have amassed at the border since the savage Hamas terror attack three weeks ago that left over 1,400 dead.
Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said the campaign in the Palestinian enclave “will continue until further notice” and added: “We have moved on to a new phase of the war. The ground shook in Gaza. We attacked above ground and below ground. We attacked terror operatives of all ranks.”
IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi said in a video statement that the ground operations “serve to achieve all the war’s objectives: dismantling Hamas; security at the borders; and uppermost efforts to return all the hostages back home”. He added: “The objectives of the war require ground entry. There are no achievements without risks, and there is no victory without prices being paid.
“To expose the enemy and destroy it, there is no other way but to enter its territory with great force. We have set clear goals, the road will be long… we will fight with determination, and win.”
Israel’s military said the head of the terror group’s aerial forces, who commanded the paragliders responsible for massacring more than 260 music festival-goers, was killed in the recent strikes.
A naval forces commander behind the foiled attempt to raid Israel from the sea on October 24 also died.
The Palestinian health ministry claimed that 7,703 people, over half of them children, have been killed since Israel began carrying out air strikes following Hamas’s October 7 surprise terror attacks.
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It remains unclear how many were killed in the new ground offensive and bombing but the Gaza Civil Defence said that hundreds of buildings had been destroyed and thousands damaged.
Hamas is still holding 229 Israeli hostages seized in southern Israel and yesterday, Mr Netanyahu and his wife Sara met representatives of the families of those being held. He vowed: “We will exhaust every possibility to bring them home.”
Abu Obeida, a Hamas spokesman, called for a huge prisoner release, telling a TV channel run by the terror group that “the price to pay for the large number of enemy hostages in our hands is to empty the prisons of all Palestinian prisoners”.
Hamas also said it is trying to locate eight Russian-Israeli dual citizens who they have taken hostage. Moscow wants them freed after providing a list of the names. The Kremlin is currently hosting the terror group’s leaders.
Aid organisations including the UN said the communications blackout meant they lost touch with their teams and civilians cannot call for ambulances. Yesterday, Elon Musk said that if requested, SpaceX’s Starlink – a satellite internet constellation – “will support the UN and other aid organisations”.
On Friday night, the UN General assembly adopted a resolution by Jordan calling for an “immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce” between Israeli forces and Hamas “militants”.
The UK was one of 45 countries that abstained and Foreign Secretary James Cleverly reiterated that Israel has the right to defend itself.
And last night he said: “We have consistently sought to bring about pauses to facilitate the inward passage of humanitarian aid that we are providing, the release of hostages and the evacuation of British nationals in Gaza, so that has been our position from the start.
“Of course we want to see this resolved, we want to see Israel safe, peaceful and secure. But, as yet, I have seen or heard nothing from Hamas that gives me any confidence that they desire or would abide by calls for a ceasefire.”
He added: “We are having conversations and will continue to have conversations with the Israeli military about the preservation of civilian life, about the adherence to international law.
“But they do have a right to self-defence and throughout this operation, since the atrocities of October 7, Hamas and other terrorist organisations have consistently bombarded Israel from Gaza, from among civilian infrastructure.”
Hamas yesterday fired rockets at Israel, while rockets, mortars and anti-tank guided missiles were also launched by Iranian-backed Hezbollah from Lebanon.
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