DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip — Internet and phone services collapsed in the Gaza Strip under intensified Israeli bombardment Friday night, largely cutting off its 2.3 million people from the outside world and each other, as Israel’s military said it was “expanding” ground operations in the besieged territory.
The military’s announcement signaled it was moving closer to an all-out invasion of Gaza, where it has vowed to crush the ruling Hamas militant group after its bloody incursion in southern Israel three weeks ago.
Explosions from a barrage of airstrikes lit up the sky over Gaza City after nightfall Friday when the blackout in internet, cellular and landline services hit. Already plunged into darkness after most electricity was cut off weeks ago, Palestinians were now thrown into isolation, huddled in homes and shelters, with food and water supplies running out. The Palestinian telecom provider, Paltel, said the “complete disruption” was due to bombardment.
Casualties from new airstrikes could not be immediately known in the information blackout. The Red Crescent said it cannot reach its medical teams and that residents can no longer call ambulances, meaning rescuers will have to chase the sound of explosions to find those wounded from strikes. International aid groups said they were only able to reach a few staff using satellite phones.
Relatives outside Gaza panicked after their messaging chats with families inside suddenly went dead and calls stopped going through.
“I was so scared this was going to happen,” said Wafaa Abdul Rahman, director of a feminist organization based in the West Bank city of Ramallah. She said she hadn't heard for hours from family in central Gaza.
“We’ve been seeing these horrible things and massacres when it’s live on TV, so now what will happen when there’s a total blackout?” she said, referring to scenes of families that have been crushed in homes by airstrikes over the past weeks.
Israeli military spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said ground forces were “expanding their activity” Friday evening in Gaza and “acting with great force … to achieve the objectives of the war.” Israel says its strikes target Hamas fighters and infrastructure and that the militants operate from among civilians, putting them in danger.
Israel has amassed hundreds of thousands of troops along the border with Gaza ahead of an expected ground offensive. Earlier Friday, the military said ground forces conducted their second hourslong incursion inside Gaza in as many days, striking dozens of militant targets over the past 24 hours.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told a small group of foreign reporters that Israel expects a long and difficult ground offensive into Gaza soon. It “will take a long time” to dismantle Hamas' vast network of tunnels, he said, adding that he expected a lengthy phase of lower-intensity fighting as Israel destroys “pockets of resistance.”
His comments pointed to a potentially grueling and open-ended new phase of the war after three weeks of relentless bombardment. Israel has said it aims to crush Hamas’ rule in Gaza and its ability to threaten Israel. But how Hamas’ defeat will be measured and an invasion’s endgame remain unclear. Israel says it does not intend to rule the tiny territory of 2.3 million Palestinians but not who it expects to govern — even as Gallant suggested a long-term insurgency could ensue.
The Palestinian death toll in Gaza has soared past 7,300, more than 60% of them minors and women, according to the territory's Health Ministry. A blockade on Gaza has meant dwindling supplies, and the U.N. warned that its aid operation helping hundreds of thousands of people was “crumbling” amid near-depleted fuel.
More than 1,400 people were slain in Israel during Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, according to the Israeli government, and at least 229 hostages were taken into Gaza. Palestinian militants have fired thousands of rockets into Israel, including one that hit a residential building in Tel Aviv on Friday, wounding four people.
The overall number of deaths far exceeds the combined toll of all four previous Israel-Hamas wars, estimated at around 4,000.
The conflict has threatened to ignite a wider war across the region.
U.S. warplanes struck targets in eastern Syria that the Pentagon said were linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard after a string of attacks on American forces. Two mysterious explosions hit Red Sea coastal towns in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, wounding six people. Israel's Foreign Ministry blamed Yemen's Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who have tried to fire rockets toward Israel since the war began.
A ground invasion is expected to cause even higher casualties as Israeli forces and Hamas battle in dense residential areas.
Gazan hospitals have been scrounging for fuel to run emergency generators that power incubators and other life-saving equipment after Israel cut off all fuel deliveries at the start of the war, forcing its only power plant to shut down.
Gallant said Israel believes that Hamas would confiscate any fuel that enters. He said Hamas uses generators to pump air into its hundreds of kilometers (miles) of tunnels, which originate in civilian areas. He showed reporters aerial footage of what he said was a tunnel shaft built right next to a hospital.
“For air, they need oil. For oil, they need us,” he said.
Late Friday, the army released photos showing what it claimed were Hamas installations in and around Gaza’s largest hospital, al-Shifa. Israel has made such claims before, but they declined to say how they obtained the photos.
Little is known about Hamas’ tunnels and other infrastructure. Claims by the military and Gallant couldn’t be verified.
Speaking at al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, Hamas media chief Salama Moussa called Israel's claims “lies” and said they were “a precursor for striking this facility.”
“I ring the alarm bell. There is imminent danger hovering above the medical facility" and those in it, Moussa said. The hospital has been overwhelmed by thousands of patients and wounded, and around 40,000 displaced Gaza residents have crowded in and around its grounds for shelter, the U.N. says.
Asked if the military plans to target al-Shifa, Hagari said, "We will not be able to allow terror activity against Israel from hospitals and we will have to, together with the rest of the world, confront this red flag.” He said Hamas uses “its own population as a human shield.”
About 1.4 million people in Gaza have fled their homes, with nearly half of them crowding into U.N. shelters. Hundreds of thousands remain in northern Gaza, despite Israel ordering them to evacuate to the south and saying that those who remain might be considered “accomplices” of Hamas.
Over the past week, Israel has allowed more than 80 trucks with aid enter from Egypt through the Rafah crossing – including 10 trucks of food, medicine and other supplies Friday morning. The convoys meet only a tiny fraction of Gaza's needs amid a worsening humanitarian collapse.
The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, which provides basic services to hundreds of thousands of people in Gaza, said it has been forced to ration fuel and only has enough for a few more days.
“The siege means that food, water and fuel – basic commodities — are being used to collectively punish more than 2 million people, among them, a majority of children and women,” Philippe Lazzarini, the head of UNRWA, told reporters. He said U.N. workers in Gaza report “the last remaining public services are collapsing, our aid operation is crumbling and for the first time ever, they report that people are now hungry.”
Federman reported from Tel Aviv and Mroue from Beirut. Najib Jobain in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Jack Jeffery in Cairo, Isabel DeBre in Jerusalem, and Brian Melley in London, contributed to this report.