Israel-Hamas war enters ‘second stage,’ Netanyahu says
By Patrick Kingsley, Ronen Bergman, Thomas Fuller and Eric Schmitt
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a televised news conference Saturday that Israel’s forces had entered the Gaza Strip, calling it his country’s “second war of independence” and warning Israelis to expect a “long and difficult” campaign to eradicate Hamas.
Netanyahu said the troops had gone into Gaza on Friday evening, beginning “the second stage of the war.” The Israeli military has not publicly described the current operation as an invasion, and has released only brief footage of its advance.
The ground assault in the northern part of the Gaza Strip was shrouded in secrecy and ambiguity and accompanied by an enormous aerial and artillery bombardment. It was the most sustained fighting against Hamas since the war began three weeks ago, when gunmen from the group that controls Gaza launched a surprise cross-border attack into Israel on Oct. 7, killing at least 1,400 people and spurring retaliatory airstrikes by Israel in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas’ armed wing confirmed Friday night and Saturday afternoon that the battle with Israeli ground forces had been joined. Shortly before Netanyahu’s remarks, a spokesperson for the group, Abu Obeida, greeted the relentless airstrikes and the ground incursion with defiance. Hamas would make Israel “taste new ways of death,” the spokesperson said.
With Gaza’s internet connections and phone lines down, few Palestinian accounts have emerged, making it difficult to assess the extent of the military action.
Palestinian telecommunication companies blamed Israel’s bombardment for the wide-scale communications blackout, which left most people in Gaza unreachable by phone. The blackout sparked fear and panic, according to residents who were able to reach the outside world, as people struggled to get information or check on family and friends.
“The explosions were happening to our left, to our right — from all directions,” Helmi Mousa, a Gaza City resident who huddled with his wife in their ninth-floor apartment, said Saturday. The bombardments were so intense overnight, he said, that even amid a sustained electricity blackout, their apartment was filled with the light of explosions.
“Our building was shaking, swaying back and forth,” added Mousa, who was reached on his foreign-registered cellphone, one of the few connections still working. “We could hear the booms, the airplanes, the strikes.”
The Israeli military said Saturday that warplanes had focused 150 strikes on the vast networks of tunnels in Gaza. They present a formidable challenge to Israel’s stated goal of dismantling the military and governing capabilities of Hamas.
The chief Israeli military spokesperson, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, told reporters Saturday night that the Israeli military was “gradually increasing its ground activity in the Gaza Strip and the scale of its forces.”
Israeli military officials had been discussing plans for a full-scale invasion with their counterparts in the Biden administration, who had expressed fears that the plans lacked achievable goals.
But the raids so far into Gaza by Israeli ground forces appear to be smaller and more narrowly focused than what had been described, suggesting that Israel had taken the Americans’ advice to heart, at least for now, U.S. officials said Saturday.
A possible complicating factor for a full-scale invasion are the subterranean pathways and chambers controlled by Hamas, some as deep as 130 feet below ground and packed with weapons and ammunition. That is where the militant group is holding more than 200 hostages, Israel says.
For the Gaza residents living above the tunnels, one of the most frightening propositions now will be how to survive a war where the ground below them is part of the battlefield.
Speaking at a forum for relatives of hostages shortly after meeting with Netanyahu, Meirav Leshem Gonen, the mother of a missing person, said that the families had demanded that the Israeli government “consider the fate of the kidnapped and missing” in any operation in Gaza, and that the army make sure any mission did not endanger their loved ones.
Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, said in a statement on the Telegram messaging app that his group, which the United States has declared a terrorist organization, would release the hostages if Israel freed the thousands of Palestinians in Israeli jails. A spokesperson for the Israeli military dismissed his statement as “psychological terror — nothing was ever on the table.”
Saudi Arabia and other Arab governments have warned that a full-scale war in Gaza could be catastrophic for the Middle East. Tensions have spiked between Israel and Turkey in recent days, particularly over remarks by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan defending Hamas and criticizing Israel for its campaign in Gaza.
Hours after Israeli forces entered Gaza on Friday night, pro-Palestinian protesters poured into the streets of several cities around the world, including in New York City, denouncing the strikes. In Istanbul on Saturday, huge crowds waved Turkish and Palestinian flags at a rally at the Ataturk Airport. In London, crowds marched Saturday over the Westminster Bridge and gathered throughout the central part of the British capital. And in Rome, crowds gathered in front of the Colosseum, with some people holding Palestinian flags.
Netanyahu’s reference Saturday to a war of independence was most likely intended as a rallying cry for Israelis, for whom the young state’s triumph against its Arab neighbors in 1948 is a cherished national story.
But for Palestinians, that time holds grim memories. About 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes during the wars surrounding Israel’s founding, an event their descendants refer to as the Nakba, or catastrophe.
Over the past week, under the accumulated trauma of Israeli airstrikes, Gaza residents say the bombs have come mostly without warning and have hit indiscriminately, leading to the feeling that imminent death is inevitable.
“You can’t imagine the feeling,” said Nayrouz Qarmout, a Palestinian author who lives in the Gaza Strip. “You are not safe. All places are targets, so you think of dying at any time.”