Israel steps up ground war in Gaza — UN surprised; US calls for protecting civilians

WASHINGTON – Israel is ramping up its military incursion into the Gaza Strip as part of its goal of eliminating Hamas, driving international alarm over the fate of Palestinian civilians trapped in the fighting to a fever pitch.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said they have entered a new phase of its military operation three weeks since Hamas launched its rampage across southern Israel. The IDF have been expanding ground operations into the Strip and intensifying air and naval strikes, according to the group itself, Hamas and ground reports.

“We are in the midst of a campaign for our existence,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a speech earlier this week, as he paid tribute to the estimated 1,400 people that were massacred by Hamas in its attack on Oct. 7.

“We have set two goals for this war: To eliminate Hamas by destroying its military and governing abilities, and to do everything possible to bring our captives home. All Hamas terrorists are dead men walking — above ground, below ground, outside Gaza.”

The IDF has provided some information related to a widening ground incursion into Gaza, as it also said it was countering rocket strikes from Hezbollah in Lebanon, while air raid alarms sounded across southern and northern Israel.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant Friday evening. The two discussed Israel’s ground operations as Austin underscored the “importance of protecting civilians…focusing on the urgency of humanitarian aid delivery for civilians in Gaza,” according to a readout of the call.

Austin also “raised his focus on the need for Hamas to release all of the hostages.” Hamas is holding more than 200 Israelis and people of other nationalities, including Americans, captive in Gaza. Diplomatic efforts to secure their recovery have stalled, after only four people have so far been released.

United Nations (U.N.) Secretary-General António Guterres said Saturday that he was “surprised by an unprecedented escalation of the bombardments and their devastating impacts, undermining the referred humanitarian objectives.”

Guterres was in Doha meeting with Qatari officials on discussions for the release of hostages held by Hamas, the evacuation of foreign nationsl from Gaza and the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

“This situation must be reversed. I reiterate my strong appeal for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, together with the unconditional release of hostages and a delivery of humanitarian relief at the level that corresponds to the dramatic needs of the people in Gaza, where a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in front of our eyes,” he said.

Internet and cell phone connectivity in the Gaza Strip collapsed Friday according to NetBlocks, a global internet monitoring group, which prompted alarm from U.N. World Food Program chief Cindy McCain that “lifesaving food assistance” had come to a standstill.

“We cannot reach staff and partners, or the people who rely on us. We urgently need the ability to operate and sustained access for humanitarian assistance. Every minute counts,” she posted on X, formerly Twitter.

Hamas wrote on Telegram Friday that Israel had doubled its “air sea and land bombardments” against Gaza.

The Gaza Health Ministry, which is under the authority of Hamas, has said that more than 7,000 Palestinians, including nearly 3,000 minors have been killed in the three weeks of Israel’s aerial bombardment of the Strip.

While President Biden has cast doubt on figures coming out of the Hamas-controlled Strip, the U.N. and aid groups say that independent verification following previous conflicts have found little disparity in reporting numbers from Palestinian sources.

Hind Khoudary, a Palestinian freelance journalist, posted videos on Facebook Friday that she said were being taken from a location where a small group was temporarily able to access the internet amidst the communications blackout.

“There’s a complete blackout on the Gaza strip, we have zero connections and internet connections, we can’t call each other… we managed to get internet somehow. I can’t tell you guys sorry, but no one in the Gaza Strip has internet right now. There’s a complete blackout and we’re terrified this would be something — I’m fine, my colleagues are fine, but we’re disconnected from the world,” Khoudary posted.

Khoudary then began posting text on her Facebook stories, writing that “endless explosions the situation is very terrifying.”

“I am trying to post videos, it’s not working. The sound of explosions is terrifying. The sky is orange. We don’t know anything, we are not safe. Pray for us.”

The Hill reached out to Khoudary on Facebook messenger but did not receive a response.

The IDF on Saturday released video of ground forces in the Gaza Strip, showing tank movements and fire. It said that the Israeli Navy and the Israeli Air Force (IAF) had struck land and sea targets of Hamas’s military infrastructure, including observation posts, anti-tank missile launchers and a military compound.

IDF Spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari released information Friday that the IDF says shows Hama’s complexes underneath the infrastructure of Gaza’s Al Shifa hospital, a sprawling compound with outpatient clinics, maternity departments, dialysis and imaging, part of Israel’s efforts to demonstrate how Hamas embeds itself within civilian infrastructureand that complicates its efforts to battle the terrorist group while minimizing civilian casualties.

“Hamas uses hospitals as terror infrastructures,” Hagari said in a briefing.

IDF Major General (ret.) Amos Yadlin, former head of Israel’s defense intelligence and former deputy commander of Israel’s air force, said he would be “surprised” if Israel bombed Al Shifa hospital, but that it could be a target of ground forces.

“I would be very much surprised if the Shifa Hospital will be bombed. I will not be surprised if the forces will reach the hospital and then look for the Hamas under the hospital.”

Yadlin described this next phase of Israel’s ground operations as a “low intensity conflict” beginning Friday night.

“It is not a blitzkrieg. It’s inch by inch, meter by meter. Trying to avoid casualties and trying to kill as much as possible Hamas terrorists,” he said in a call with international reporters on Saturday morning.

“The limitations are many, but the goal is very clear,” he continued, comparing Israel’s mission to destroy Hamas to the elimination of Nazi Germany and the destruction of the Islamic State by the U.S.-led international coalition.

“This is what is going to happen to Gaza,” he said, and described a campaign that could last between five weeks and five months — drawing a parallel with the five-year campaign by the U.S. and others to combat the Islamic State.

There are three main efforts of Israel’s war against Hamas, an intense air campaign that took place over the course of three weeks following Hamas’s attack on Israel, a “siege campaign,” Yadlin said, referring to the blockade Israel imposed, stopping the delivery of fuel, electricity and water to the Strip and the ground campaign, which Yadlin said is beginning.

President Biden and U.S. officials have said Israel has a right to self-defense and to conduct its operations in an “aggressive” way, even as the U.S. takes part in intense diplomacy aimed at delivering humanitarian assistance to besieged Gaza’s population of over 2 million people, including hundreds of Americans prevented from leaving through via Egypt’s Rafah Crossing.

White House National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby said Friday that approximately 84 trucks with aid had entered the Strip within the past 20 days and that the U.N. was able to access fuel, but that “clearly it’s not enough.”

Israel has opposed the delivery of fuel into the Gaza Strip over concerns that Hamas would divert the resources, in particular to run generators for air filtration in its sprawling tunnel system that are a priority target of the IDF in its ground operations.

“We continue to push for additional aid getting in,” Kirby told reporters on Friday. “We would support humanitarian pauses for stuff getting in, as well as people getting out.”

The Biden administration had reportedly called for Israel to delay expanding its military ground operations over the previous week as it worked to reinforce the U.S. military posture in the region, with U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria coming under threat from militia groups supported by Iran, and also to allow for more diplomatic efforts to release hostages and deliver aid to the Strip.

The U.S. on Friday struck two facilities in eastern Syria in response to threats and attacks against American forces in the region and has deployed 900 troops to the Middle East and coupled with air defense batteries.

Yadlin said that Biden’s statements have shown that the U.S. supports “Israel morally, diplomatically, financially and militarily 100%. And he sees the destruction of Hamas as aligned with the American interests.”

But he warned that the risk of a wider, regional conflict, and the devolving humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip will test America’s support for Israel.

Biden “from the very beginning, on the first speech, spoke about the need not to escalate this war, not to make it a regional war… and he wanted Israel to destroy Hamas with minimum collateral damage, according to the international law,” Yadlin said.

“However, if the humanitarian crisis will deepen, if somebody in Washington will judge that Israel is not acting according to the international law. I guess there will be some suggestions from the US to behave differently or to stop the attack, but we are not there yet.”

The Biden administration’s extended its support for Israel to the U.N. General Assembly on Friday, rejecting the passage of a resolution that called for “immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce” between Israeli forces and Hamas in Gaza.

The U.S. and 13 other countries who voted against the resolution criticized it as not recognizing Hamas as launching the terrorist attack on Oct. 7.

“It is outrageous that this resolution fails to name the perpetrators of the October 7th terrorist attacks: Hamas. Hamas. It is outrageous,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield said, calling the resolution “one-sided” and that such documents “will not help advance peace.”

Yadlin, who is also a senior fellow at the Kennedy school’s Belfer Center, Harvard University, said that Israel’s war against Hamas is aimed at shifting the paradigm away from how Israel had previously dealt with the terrorist group since it took control of the Strip in 2007.

For more than a decade, Israel and Hamas have engaged in alternating periods of war and calm, which allowed for reconstruction and international efforts to improve the lives of Palestinians in the Strip, with Israel increasing the number of work permits to Palestinians to travel outside of Gaza, and the delivery of humanitarian goods and services like electricity and water.

“We are not going back to the same paradigm that we have to care about Gaza, that we have to give [Gaza] electricity and fuel — we will disconnect totally from Gaza,” Yadlin warned, and said that the IDF is likely to treat the Strip as it does in the West Bank, with targeted military operations to destroy what it declares are terrorist operations – the building and hoarding of weapons or planning of attacks.

“It will be a low intensity war.”

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