The Israeli military carried out expansive airstrikes in Gaza on Sunday evening and ground troops completed their encirclement of Gaza City, slicing the enclave in two as telecommunication services to the Strip appeared to be cut again.
Israel Defense Forces Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said during an evening press conference that the military was carrying out “widespread strikes on terror infrastructure, below ground and above it.”
An official with the Hamas terror group, which rules Gaza, said that “for more than an hour, intense bombings have been taking place around hospitals.”
The vicinity of the enclave’s largest hospital, Al-Shifa, saw particularly heavy strikes, according to Salama Marouf, the head of the Hamas government’s media office. The hospital, Israel says, hosts the terror group’s main base of operations.
The Hamas claims could not be independently verified.
The increased intensity of the bombardment came after the IDF revealed new intelligence Sunday it said provided further evidence that Hamas terror group was using medical facilities in the Gaza Strip to shield terror activities.
“Hamas places forces and weapons inside, under and around schools, mosques, homes and UN facilities,” Hagari said, without confirming that Israel was targeting areas around hospitals.
As explosions and flares lit up the night sky, Gazans were once again plunged into a communications blackout, the third time phone and internet services have been cut since Israel launched its ground invasion of Gaza just over a week ago.
Palestinian telecom firm Paltel accused Israel of cutting internet and phone lines in the Gaza Strip right before the evening operation.
The blackout, which Israel has not commented on, came hours after Hagari said Israeli forces had split the coastal enclave in two after fully encircling Gaza City.
“Today there is north Gaza and south Gaza,” Hagari said, noting that troops led by the Golani Brigade’s reconnaissance unit, part of the 36th Division, had “reached the coastline and are holding it.”
The intensified push came as Israelis marked a month since the Hamas’s brutal October 7 assault on communities in southern Israel in which some 1,400 people, mostly civilians, were killed by armed terrorists who stormed across the border, many in their homes or at a music festival. At least 240 people of all ages were abducted and remain hostage in Gaza.
As the war has raged, Hamas and other terror groups have continued to rain rockets on Israel, displacing over 200,000 Israelis and causing widespread damage despite the cover provided by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense shield.
Israel has appeared to pursue a two-pronged strategy in Gaza, urging civilians to head south as it carries out heavy bombing raids and a large ground offensive on the north, home to Gaza City, where Hamas has an expansive network of underground fortifications.
On Sunday, the military said it facilitated the opening of a humanitarian corridor on the Gaza Strip’s main north-south artery to allow Palestinian civilians in northern Gaza to evacuate to its south. The military says it will still allow civilians to leave north Gaza and head south, but not the other way, urging Palestinians to avoid becoming human shields for the Strip’s rulers.
Crowds walked down Gaza’s main north-south highway carrying baggage or pets and pushing wheelchairs. Others led donkey carts.
One man said they had to walk 500 meters with their hands raised while passing Israeli troops. Another described seeing bodies along the road. “The children saw tanks for the first time. Oh world, have mercy on us,” said one Palestinian man who declined to give his name.
“The northern Gaza Strip and Gaza City are a war zone, a very dangerous area,” Col. Moshe Tetro said in an Arabic-language video statement. “The criminal Hamas terror organization is using you as human shields.”
An estimated 800,000 Palestinians have fled to the south from Gaza City and other northern areas following repeated Israeli calls to evacuate, but hundreds of thousands remain in the north, including many who left and later returned, citing dire shortages of shelter and other necessities, and the fact that Israeli airstrikes have also targeted the southern cities of Rafah and Khan Younis at times.
The UN said about 1.5 million people in Gaza, or 70% of the population, have fled their homes. Many have sought shelter from airstrikes in schools or hospitals.
Israel has repeatedly accused Hamas of attempting to prevent Palestinians from evacuating northern Gaza, including firing on them and bombing evacuation routes, due to its desire to keep civilians around its centers of activity as human shields, or as fodder to help build international pressure for a ceasefire, which has grown as the civilian toll has allegedly mounted.
Israel says its offensive in Gaza is aimed at destroying Hamas’s infrastructure, and has vowed to eliminate the entire terror group. It says it is targeting all areas where Hamas operates, while seeking to minimize civilian casualties.
Gaza health authorities, controlled by Hamas, say more than 9,700 people, including women and children, have been killed in the fighting. The figures issued by the terror group cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include its own terrorists and gunmen, killed in Israel and in Gaza, the victims of a blast at a Gaza City hospital on October 17 caused by an Islamic Jihad missile misfire that Hamas has blamed on Israel, and those killed by the hundreds of rockets fired by terror groups that have fallen short inside the Strip.
Israel says it killed some 1,000 Hamas terrorists inside Israel on and after October 7 and captured about 200 alive. It believes many more terrorists’ bodies have still not been recovered and tallied.
Slow, careful movements
With Gaza City surrounded, troops have begun carrying out operations on the outskirts of the city, a dense urban environment expected to pose a major challenge for Israel’s army.
Since the beginning of the ground offensive in the Gaza Strip a week ago, the IDF has struck more than 2,500 targets by land, air and sea, the army says.
The military said earlier that its 36th Division — made up of infantry forces, tanks, artillery, and combat engineers — had struck some 1,600 Hamas targets alone, including infrastructure used by the terror group, weapon depots, anti-tank missile positions and observation posts as it besieged the city over the past week, moving in from the north and east.
The ground push has been backed by heavy artillery strikes, often carried out just a few hundred meters of the Israeli forces to push back any Hamas operatives seeking to target troops.
The IDF said the division also killed more than 300 Hamas terror operatives amid the fighting.
On Sunday evening alone, some 50 Hamas sites were hit and several gunmen were killed in close-quarters fighting, the military said.
The division has been moving at a slow pace to properly clear areas of potential threats, including tunnels which are later destroyed, according to the IDF. Israeli troops have come under repeated fire, including from fighters emerging from tunnels to fire rocket-propelled grenades, and have been ambushed a number of times.
It has also been forced to make adjustments to counter Hamas’s use of drones to drop explosives on troops in the Gaza Strip, The Times of Israel has learned.
The military says 29 troops have been killed since the ground offensive began on October 27.
But in a sign that progress is being made, rocket launches from areas captured by Israeli troops have completely halted, according to the military.
According to the IDF, Hamas has also struggled of late to carry out large-scale organized attacks on troops. It credited Israeli airstrikes on Hamas field commanders, though it has largely failed to reach the group’s leadership, who are thought to be hunkered down underground.
Though reticent to send troops into tunnels amid the fighting, the military claims it nonetheless has ways to target Hamas operatives hiding inside tunnels, without offering specifics.
As Israel’s intensified push got underway Sunday night, rocket warning sirens rang in Tel Aviv and other communities across central Israel. Northern cities also came under rocket attack from Lebanon, with several projectiles causing heavy damage in Kiryat Shmona, the city said.
The IDF believes the ongoing stage in the ground offensive will last several months to achieve the objective of eliminating Hamas’s Gaza City stronghold with minimal casualties to Israeli forces.
US President Joe Biden’s administration, while remaining the strongest backer of Israel’s military response to Hamas’s attacks, is increasingly seeking to use its influence with Israel to try to temper the effect of near round-the-clock air, ground and sea assaults in Gaza, home to 2.3 million people. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected US calls for “humanitarian pauses” in the fighting unless Israel receives hostages in return.
US Central Intelligence Agency director chief Bill Burns is expected in Israel this week to discuss the ongoing operation, an official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel Sunday. It will be Burns’s first trip to Israel since the outbreak of the war.
Burns will also make stops in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt during the regional tour, which will include a particular focus on efforts to secure the release of the roughly 240 hostages currently being held in Gaza, including several Americans.
Also Sunday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant met with the families of Israelis being held hostage in Gaza, outlining the efforts to locate their loved ones.
“Hamas is absorbing tough blows on the battlefield and will try to hurt us with psychological warfare in the most sensitive and painful places,” Gallant told the families, according to a statement from his office.
“The military pressure on [Hamas] is also serving the efforts to bring back the hostages,” he added.
In a message to the international community, Gallant also reiterated that “there will not be a pause in fighting until the hostages return.”
Agencies contributed to this report.