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Israel's Netanyahu calls Gaza expansion the second phase of a 'long war'

People search through buildings that were destroyed during Israeli air raids in the southern Gaza Strip on Saturday in Khan Yunis, Gaza.
Ahmad Hasaballah
Getty Images
People search through buildings that were destroyed during Israeli air raids in the southern Gaza Strip on Saturday in Khan Yunis, Gaza.

Updated October 28, 2023 at 10:33 PM ET

TEL AVIV, Israel — Israeli troops remained on the ground in the Gaza Strip Saturday as part of what military officials have described as an "expansion" of ground operations, marking a significant escalation in Israel's war with the militant group Hamas that began earlier this month.

For the last several days, the Israel Defense Forces had mounted a series of limited incursions into Gaza, in which soldiers left soon after entering. But Saturday's announcement was the first extended presence of Israeli troops in the territory.

In a televised press conference on Saturday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the escalation that began on Friday marked "the second stage" of the campaign and said Israelis should anticipate "a difficult and long war."

He called Israel's battle against Hamas the nation's "second war of independence."

For the first time since the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack, the prime minister took questions from reporters. He fended off questions about his responsibility for the country's security failure that day — saying that would be investigated after the war.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference in the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv on Saturday, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas.
Abir Sultan / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference in the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv on Saturday, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas.

Israeli troops entered from northern Gaza, among them ground troops, armor and artillery, military spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said at a press briefing Saturday morning.

"Expanding the operation serves all the war's goals," Hagari said.

Footage released by the Israeli military appeared to show tanks entering along the beach on Gaza's north end. The ground operation was supported by "very significant, massive attacks from the sea" and heavy air bombardment, he said.

As part of the assault, Israeli officials said soldiers "neutralized" terrorist cells and directed air forces to destroy the building site of a Hamas operational meeting point.

In a statement, Hamas called the operation a "failure" and said Israel took heavy losses. An Israeli military spokesperson said Israel had no casualties in Friday night's fighting. Neither claim could be independently confirmed.

IDF fighter jets struck 150 underground targets across the northern Gaza Strip, officials said, killing a number of Hamas operatives. Among those killed was Asem Abu Rakaba, the IDF said, describing him as an official who had helped to plan the Oct. 7 attack in which hundreds of Hamas fighters flooded across Gaza's border and killed more than 1,400 civilians and soldiers in Israel. Abu Rakaba was responsible for the drones and paragliders used by Hamas that day, an IDF statement said.

"Their death and assassination leads to a good advancement in the war's stages and allows the forces on the ground to battle a weaker enemy," Hagari added.

Internet and phone service are out in Gaza

Smoke rises from an explosion in Gaza on Saturday.
Dan Kitwood / Getty Images
Getty Images
Smoke rises from an explosion in Gaza on Saturday.

The intensifying military operations took place amid a near-total outage of internet and phone service in Gaza, which began around sunset Friday.

Multiple aid groups, including the International Committee of the Red Cross and the World Health Organization, reported difficulty contacting local staff in Gaza.

"We are still out of touch with our staff and health facilities. I'm worried about their safety," said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO, in a Saturday post on the social media site X, previously known as Twitter.

NPR was also unable to reach local staff in Gaza. The U.N.'s top humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinian territories said they had only been able to reach staff in Gaza via satellite phone.

The intensifying conflict paired with the communications challenges sparked widespread concern about deteriorating conditions in Gaza.

More than 1.4 million people in Gaza are displaced from their homes, the U.N. estimates. Shortages of food, water, fuel and electricity were already severe, aid groups had reported. Hospitals are overrun with patients injured in airstrikes, and at night, their hallways fill with people trying to take shelter from airstrikes.

"Even some of the doctors' medical staffs, they are saying, what is the benefit of the help that we are doing now? We are not able to help patients anymore. We cannot do anything for them," said Dr. Mohamad Matar, who spoke to NPR Friday before the blackout.

Fewer than 100 trucks of aid have been allowed into Gaza since the conflict began. Israel said Saturday it would allow more trucks to enter through Gaza's southern border with Egypt — but warned that the aid would only be available to people in the southern half of the territory.

"Whoever will be in this area, which is a protected area, will receive food, water and medicine," Hagari said. Israel has repeatedly struck southern Gaza, including the densely populated areas of Khan Younis and Rafah, with airstrikes.

In the English-language video message posted to social media, Hagari repeated the Israeli military's frequent calls for residents to evacuate northern Gaza. "Your window to act is closing," he said. "Move south for your own safety. This is not a mere precaution. It is an urgent plea."

It was unclear how Gaza residents would hear the warning since internet and other communications in the enclave have been cut off.

On Saturday, health officials in Gaza said that more than 7,700 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli airstrikes.

230 hostages are being held by Hamas, Israel says

Israeli officials said 230 hostages are still being held in Gaza by Hamas. On Saturday night, Netanyahu took a meeting with a group of families of hostages and other missing people, who had demanded assurances from Israel's war cabinet that the expanded operation would not endanger the lives of the hostages.

During the two-hour meeting, the group said that an "all-for-all" deal would receive major national support, referring to all Palestinian prisoners held by Israel — of which there are more than 5,000, according to Israeli human rights group B'Tselem — for all hostages held in Gaza. Hamas claims 50 hostages have already been killed by Israeli airstrikes. Hamas said it would be open to such a deal.

In response, Netanyahu told the families the abductees would not be ignored, according to a statement from the group, which is called the Hostages and Missing Persons Families Forum.

"We will utilize and exhaust every possibility to bring them home," the prime minister told the group. "It is an integral part of the goals for the operations as we have defined them. This is not mere lip service."

The group was angry that Israeli officials failed to inform them about how their relatives would be protected ahead of the public announcement of the intensified assault.

"This night was the most terrible of all nights. It was a long and sleepless night, against the backdrop of the major IDF operation in the Strip, and absolute uncertainty regarding the fate of the hostages held there, who were also subject to the heavy bombings," said Liat Bell Sommer, a spokesperson for the group.

Pro-Palestinian protesters marched in multiple countries

Protesters march as they cross the Brooklyn Bridge during a pro-Palestinian demonstration demanding a cease-fire on Saturday in New York City.
Andres Kudacki / AP
Protesters march as they cross the Brooklyn Bridge during a pro-Palestinian demonstration demanding a cease-fire on Saturday in New York City.

In the wake of Israel's expanded air and ground attacks in Gaza, pro-Palestinian demonstrators marched in several major cities in the U.S. and in Europe on Saturday to demand a cease-fire in the region.

In New York, a protest that drew thousands of people forced a shutdown of the Brooklyn Bridge, a day after another pro-Palestinian rally led to the temporary closure of Grand Central Terminal.

Crowds in San Francisco chanted and waved Palestinian flags during a three-hour march that began at the city's ferry building and later blocked all lanes of a section of Highway 101.

A London protest organized by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign passed by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's Downing Street office and concluded outside the Houses of Parliament.

Like Washington, the British government has so far resisted calls for a cease-fire and said that Israel has a right to defend itself after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas.

Daniel Estrin contributed reporting in Tel Aviv. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.

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