Israeli troops are holding a swath of the northern Gaza Strip, a day after launching an intense ground offensive that took them further into the besieged enclave.
Dozens of tanks, accompanied by infantry and combat engineers and operating under the cover of a huge aerial bombardment, had “stabilised their defensive lines” inside Gaza, said military chief of staff Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi.
“This is a war with multiple stages — today we move to the next one,” he said, three weeks after Israel declared war on Hamas. “The objectives of this war require a ground operation.”
Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a press conference on Saturday evening that his country was “just at the start of the path”.
The decision to widen ground operations was taken unanimously by the war cabinet, he said. The army’s mission was to “remove this evil from the world . . . for the good of the whole of humanity”.
“We will fight and we won’t retreat . . . We’ll destroy the enemy above ground and below ground. We will fight and win,” he said.
The manoeuvre was not the blitzkrieg predicted by many, but was still the beginning of a long-signalled ground invasion to root out Hamas, said Amos Yadlin, a retired general and ex-head of military intelligence.
“It is inch by inch, metre by metre,” he said. “It is low-intensity conflict, and it started last night.”
In a video released by the IDF, Israeli tanks were shown operating along the Mediterranean Sea near its perimeter fence with the blockaded enclave, and massing in other locations.
One frame showed tanks near what appeared to be the village of Beit Lahia, at the edge of the Jabalia refugee camp, which is usually densely populated. Israel has repeatedly ordered Palestinians to flee south ahead of the anticipated ground operation, which will probably focus on Gaza City.
It is unclear how many civilians remain in the north.
Israeli air strikes knocked out nearly all communications in the Gaza Strip ahead of the operation, and its troops fought through the night and into Saturday with Hamas militants who fired anti-tank missiles and mortars.
Abu Mohamed, a resident of the al-Shati refugee camp on the Mediterranean coast, said: “What happened is beyond description. They killed families, children and women with air strikes, artillery shelling and from boats. They committed horrible massacres and cut off communications so no one would hear us.”
Hamas said it had engaged the Israeli military near Beit Hanoun, north of Gaza City.
UN chief António Guterres reiterated his appeal for “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, together with the unconditional release of hostages and the delivery of relief”.
He said: “I was encouraged by what seemed to be a growing consensus for the need of at least a humanitarian pause in the Middle East. Regrettably, instead I was surprised by an unprecedented escalation of bombardments, undermining humanitarian objectives. This situation must be reversed.”
The Saudi foreign ministry said it “denounces the ground operations by the Israeli army in Gaza”. The United Arab Emirates said on Friday it “condemned” the operations and called for an immediate ceasefire.
At a rally in Istanbul, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that Hamas, which has political offices in Qatar and in Turkey, was “not a terrorist organisation . . . Israel is an occupier”.
“We will tell the whole world that Israel is a war criminal,” he told hundreds of thousands of supporters.
The IDF said it had hit 150 Hamas targets overnight, describing them as tunnels, combat spaces and underground infrastructure. It added that it had also killed Asem Abu Rakaba, believed to be head of the Hamas unit which launched paragliders in the October 7 attack on Israel.
The communications blackout has made it difficult to update death tolls and for ambulances to tend to the wounded. The World Health Organization and Médecins Sans Frontières have lost contact with their teams.
At least 7,650 people have been killed in Israeli air strikes since the war began, according to Palestinian officials. More than 1,400 people were killed in Israel by Hamas militants in the raid on October 7, according to the government, with 229 being held hostage.
Netanyahu met some of the hostages’ families on Saturday evening. They demanded that the military action take into account the fate of the hostages and missing.
“Any move considered [should] take into account the wellbeing of our loved ones,” said Meirav Leshem Gonen, the mother of 23-year-old Romi Leshem, who was snatched from a music festival.
At a subsequent press conference defence minister Yoav Gallant said that continuing the campaign would put pressure on Hamas to release the hostages.
“This is a reality that we’ve never been faced with before . . . it’s not a secondary objective, but a primary objective,” he said. “We shouldn’t fool ourselves. Our enemies aren’t seeking a humanitarian solution . . . as we hit Hamas harder, so the chances increase of [the militant group] reaching a point where it will agree to solutions that will return your loved ones.”
Some images on social media showed large plumes of smoke along the northern Gaza Strip and exchanges of fire.
Phillipe Lazzarini, the head of UNRWA, the UN agency that provides aid to Palestinian refugees, said public services and civil order in the territory, home to 2.3mn people, were collapsing.
Israel has blocked humanitarian aid from entering Gaza, allowing in only a few trucks each day that the UN and other agencies said were inadequate for the hundreds of thousands seeking refuge.
“Our aid operation is crumbling and for the first time ever, [UN staff] report that now people are hungry,” Lazzarini said.
Ishaq Sidr, Palestinian minister of telecommunications and information technology, told Palestine TV that Israeli warplanes had attacked telecoms infrastructure that included two points of contact with the outside world.
He said this was having a severe impact on ambulance services in the enclave and had stopped Gazans from transmitting and documenting Israeli attacks in real time. Human rights agencies echoed his concerns.
Additional reporting by Mai Khaled in Rafah, Andrew England in London, Guy Chazan in Jerusalem and Samer Al-Atrush in Riyadh