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Gazans have endured their heaviest night of Israeli bombardment from air, land and sea since the start of the war three weeks ago.
The overnight attacks have led to hundreds of deaths and the destruction of many buildings, according to officials in Gaza. A communications blackout imposed by Israel cut off landlines, mobiles and the internet, hampering the evacuation of the wounded, with the ambulance service unreachable, health officials said.
Many people are still under the rubble of their homes, according to the civil defence authorities.
On Saturday the Hamas-controlled health ministry said the death toll in the territory since the start of the Israeli offensive three weeks ago had risen to 7,650, with 377 people killed since Friday. It accused Israel of committing “53 massacres”, meaning there were attacks on the homes of 53 families.
More than 1,400 people were killed in Israel by Hamas militants in the cross-border raid on October 7 which started the hostilities, according to the Israeli government, with 222 more being held hostage in Gaza.
Drone footage broadcast on Al Jazeera television on Saturday showed flattened buildings in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis and a collapsed home where the television channel said 18 members of the same family had been killed. People were shown working with their hands to pull out a survivor.
Abu Mohamed Baraka, in the Rimal area of Gaza City, said: “The bodies of martyrs and injured people were on the street with no ambulances to move them. Some car owners volunteered to take them to hospitals. The ambulance arrived after two hours.”
On the western side of the city in the Shati refugee camp, which was heavily targeted by the Israelis, Jehad Mahdy described the attacks as “a horror movie”.
“There were no communications and no internet,” he said. “We returned to the stone age. You couldn’t check on anyone. We saw bodies on the streets.”
UNRWA, the main UN agency providing services to Palestinian refugees, said it had lost contact with its teams in Gaza and had only patchy communication with its local director who was in Rafah, on the border with Egypt. The agency is housing more than 600,000 displaced people in schools which are used as shelters.
“Conditions in Gaza are worsening,” said Juliette Touma, UNRWA spokesperson. “We are unable to get a clear picture on the latest situation because of the breakdown in communications.”
The agency has lost 53 staff members since the start of the war. Touma said she was unable to confirm if more had been killed since Israel stepped up the intensity of its offensive on Friday night.
UNRWA movements in Gaza have become “minimal” because of the bombardment, the lack of communications and the lack of fuel, according to Touma. Israel has banned the entry of fuel to the besieged territory and UNRWA, which has warned it would run out soon, is now forced to substantially ration it.
“We remind all parties of their obligations under international humanitarian law and international human rights law,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk.
“The bombing of the telecommunications infrastructure places the civilian population in grave danger. Ambulances and civil defence teams are no longer able to locate the injured, or the thousands of people estimated to be still under the rubble.”
Another UN agency, the World Health Organisation, has also criticised the communications blackout. WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus posted on X, formerly Twitter, that reports of the bombardment were “extremely distressing”.
“Evacuation of patients is not possible under such circumstances, nor to find safe shelter. The blackout is also making it impossible for ambulances to reach the injured. We are still out of touch with our staff,” he said.
The Israeli army on Saturday reiterated its warning to people in the north of Gaza to head south.
In a video posted on X, an IDF spokesperson said that the relocation would be a temporary measure. “Moving back to northern Gaza will be possible once the intense hostilities end,” he said. “The impending IDF operation is set to neutralise the threat of Hamas with precision and intensity.”
The “window to act” for residents of northern Gaza and Gaza City was closing, he warned.