The Israeli military launched a particularly intense bombardment of the Gaza Strip late on Friday and said it was “expanding ground activity” there overnight, while cellular and internet service abruptly vanished for much of the territory, raising the possibility that a full-scale invasion was underway or imminent.
It was not clear whether the escalation in Israeli operations signaled a coming invasion, which Israeli officials have hinted at since the deadly Oct. 7 incursion into Israel led by Hamas, the armed militant group that controls Gaza. But the military statements came after two consecutive nights of raids into Gaza by Israeli ground forces — incursions it has described as laying the groundwork for the next phase of the war, whatever shape that may take.
Israeli leaders, who have vowed to remove Hamas from power, had been deliberating how, when — and even whether — to invade, as diplomats conducted back-channel negotiations aimed at freeing hostages held by Hamas. The government says that the Oct. 7 attack killed more than 1,400 people and seized more than 200 captives who are being held in Gaza.
Until this week, the Israeli war effort has relied almost entirely on airstrikes and artillery, a campaign that the Hamas authorities say has killed more than 7,000 people and that aid agencies say has displaced more than a million.
International pressure is growing for a cease-fire and for more humanitarian aid to reach Gaza, where conditions are fast deteriorating. But the Israeli government, backed by the Biden administration, so far has shown no openness to a cease-fire, which a White House spokesman said this week “only benefits Hamas.”
Israel was “expanding ground activity” in Gaza during the night, the military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said in a news briefing on Friday evening, but he did not elaborate on what that would mean, and did not refer to a full-scale offensive.
Hours later, Hamas’s military wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades, said in a statement that “violent clashes are taking place on the ground” on the northeastern and eastern edges of Gaza. The Israeli military said some of its troops were fighting in Gaza, but declined to say whether the operation was a small incursion or the start of something larger.
Admiral Hagari confirmed that the Israeli Air Force had intensified its strikes on Gaza Friday evening, saying that it was targeting underground “terrorist infrastructure.” He also said that the territory’s largest medical facility, Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City — where civilians have sought shelter as well as treatment for injuries, was being used to shield Hamas’s headquarters beneath it, an accusation that Hamas has denied.
Two major Palestinian mobile networks, Jawwal and Paltel, said that their phone lines and internet services were down, and most attempts to contact residents from beyond Gaza failed. The Palestinian Red Crescent said it had completely lost contact with its headquarters in the Gaza Strip and is “deeply concerned” about its people’s ability to provide medical services and residents’ ability to call ambulances.
Palestinians who managed to communicate with the outside world said that fear and panic were spreading about what the Israeli military had planned.
Israel says its intense bombardment has been aimed at Hamas, but the group’s people, command posts and depots are deeply enmeshed within — and in tunnels beneath — Gaza’s neighborhoods. Israel has struck sites like apartment buildings, mosques and markets, calling them legitimate targets.
Facing a blockade by Israel, with the help of Egypt, civilians and aid groups in Gaza are running critically low on food, water, fuel and medicine. Israeli, Western and some Arab officials say Hamas has ample stockpiles but refuses to put them to humanitarian uses, which a Hamas government spokesman has denied.
Aid officials said on Friday that only 10 trucks carrying humanitarian aid had crossed the border between Egypt and Gaza in the previous 24 hours — far short of the 100 per day they say are needed. The United Nations’ chief aid official for Gaza lashed out at the Israeli blockade that has kept more shipments from getting through.
“The siege means that food, water and fuel — basic commodities — are being used to collectively punish more than two million people, among them, a majority of children and women,” Philippe Lazzarini, head of UNRWA, the U.N. agency providing aid in Gaza, said on Friday.
“We should avoid conveying the message that a few trucks a day means the siege is lifted for humanitarian aid,” he added at a news conference in Jerusalem, according to a transcript released by the agency. “It is not. The current system in place is geared to fail.”
A U.N.-led agreement has allowed some aid trucks into Gaza at the city of Rafah, along the border with Egypt, slightly easing the blockade. But in the first week of the agreement, only 84 trucks made the crossing, with hundreds more waiting on the Egyptian side, so water, food, electricity and medical supplies remain in critically short supply.
Israel insists on thoroughly inspecting every truckload for weapons, rather than trusting U.N. inspections. Aid agencies say that and disorganization by the Egyptian authorities have slowed things down drastically.
Many humanitarian efforts in Gaza are hobbled by lack of fuel, but Israel has refused to allow fuel deliveries, which it says would help Hamas.
The Israeli military said earlier on Friday that it had sent troops into Gaza, backed by aerial drones and warplanes, in a raid that “struck dozens of terror targets” in central Gaza belonging to Hamas. Admiral Hagari said the raid had begun “in the light of day” on Thursday and had “ended successfully in the morning hours” on Friday with no casualties.
American officials have urged Israel to delay any invasion to give time for hostage negotiations and for the United States to better protect its forces in the Middle East. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated this week that an invasion was likely.
On Thursday, the leaders of the 27 European Union countries issued a joint statement calling for pauses in the fighting “for humanitarian needs.”
On Friday the U.N. General Assembly voted 120 to 14, with the United States and Israel in the minority, to approve a nonbinding resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire. Several of the countries closest to the United States were among 45 that abstained.
As Israel pummels Gaza, Hamas and its allies have continued firing rockets at Israel, including barrages on Friday that caused minor damage and a handful of injuries.
Patrick Kingsley and Hiba Yazbek reported from Jerusalem, Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv and Karen Zraick from London. Reporting was contributed by Monika Pronczuk, Vivian Yee, Farnaz Fassihi, Raja Abdulrahim, Talya Minsberg and Nick Cumming-Bruce