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Israeli troops push into Gaza for war’s ‘second stage’

JERUSALEM (THE WASHINGTON POST) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Saturday said Israel has embarked on the “second stage” of its war in Gaza as ground troops pressed into the besieged territory and a near-total communications blackout cut Palestinian residents off from the rest of the world.

“We have one main goal: to beat the enemy and guarantee our existence,” Netanyahu said in a televised address, alongside Defence Minister Yoav Gallant.

Armoured units were reportedly operating at multiple locations following a withering air assault, including 150 heavy munition strikes targeting Hamas’s tunnel network that lit up the night sky and shook the ground as far away as Egypt.

Amid the barrage, Gazans – cut off from each other and the outside by a continuing phone and internet blackout – frantically searched for safety and news of their loved ones. The attacks overnight and Saturday killed 377, according to the Ministry of Health in Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas but has been a reliable source of data on casualties in the past. More than 7,703 have been killed since October 7, the ministry said.

Bassem Nasser, an aide worker for Catholic Relief Services in Rafah in southern Gaza, managed to get out a WhatsApp message:

“Communication crisis continues. Limited access and limited information about the situation outside my own location. Sounds of air strikes and unprecedented artillery bombardment. No internal communication between team. Can’t confirm safety of any staff.”

The Israel Defence Forces said it employed heavy-scale munitions, designed to destroy underground structures, to hit the network of tunnels and subterranean chambers that Hamas is known to operate throughout the enclave.

The extensive chain of passages is thought to be where Hamas maintains shelters for its fighters, command headquarters and communications facilities and living space for some of its top military leaders. At least some, if not most, of the more than 220 hostages taken captive from Israel on October 7 are believed to have been held there.

Israeli officials would not definitely say whether the escalation represents the start of the anticipated major ground incursion aimed at “destroying Hamas.” But indications mounted that the military was ready for a sustained push.

Defence Minister Gallant, in a video release, said Israel had “completed a phase in the war,” and will now continue expanded ground activity in the Gaza Strip until further notice.

“The objectives of this war require a ground operation, the best soldiers are now operating in Gaza,” Chief of Staff General Herzi Halevi said. Netanyahu warned Saturday night that the war would be “long and difficult.”

The ground campaign likely marks the beginning of a prolonged and destructive war that could have far-reaching implications for Israelis, Palestinians and the wider Middle East. With Israeli forces and Hezbollah exchanging fire across the Lebanese border with growing frequency, the brutality of the Gaza fight could spark a wider conflict.

Israeli forces near the border with Gaza fire a long-range howitzer artillery weapon on Saturday as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced an expanded ground operation as the “second stage” of the war. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST