The Israeli military ramped up airstrikes in the Gaza Strip on Friday night and said it was expanding ground operations into the coastal enclave following several nights of limited raids.
Internet and phone services were down across Gaza amid reports by Palestinians that Israeli ground forces including tanks were operating within the Strip and heavy exchanges of gunfire could be heard.
“The Air Force is striking underground targets very significantly,” said IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari.
“In addition to the attacks that we carried out in recent days, ground forces are expanding their activity this evening. The IDF is acting with great force … to achieve the objectives of the war.”
For the last two days, IDF infantry forces and tanks have conducted limited operations in the Gaza Strip.
Hagari said the IDF will continue to strike Gaza City and surrounding areas in northern Gaza, and renewed his call for Palestinians to evacuate to the Strip’s south.
“We are prepared to defend in all arenas. We are acting in order to protect the security interests of the State of Israel,” he said.
The Hamas terror group’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, said it was confronting Israeli forces in Gaza and that “violent clashes” were taking place near Beit Hanoun in the northern part of the Palestinian enclave, and Bureij in the center.
US and Israeli officials told ABC News that the Israeli ground incursion in Gaza was not the expected large-scale offensive Israel has been threatening for three weeks — aimed to dismantle Hamas following its devastating October 7 onslaught into Israel. On that Saturday morning, some 2,500 terrorists streamed into Israel by land, sea, and air, killing over 1,400 people, a majority of them civilians in their homes and at an outdoor music festival in border communities across southern Israel. Hamas and allied terrorist factions also dragged over 220 hostages — including some 30 children — into the Gaza Strip where they remain captive.
An unnamed American source told ABC that the operation Friday was another limited one. And IDF spokesman Peter Lerner said the activity was not the major operation that has been expected since the devastating terror assault.
On Friday night, White House National Security spokesman John Kirby repeatedly refused to comment on the expanded activities, and said Washington would not draw “red lines” for Israel.
“We’re not drawing red lines for Israel,” Kirby said Friday on a call with reporters. “We’re going to continue to support them” but “since the very beginning we have, and will continue to have, conversations about the manner that they are doing this.”
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told a small group of foreign reporters earlier 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.”
Hamas had earlier called on world countries to “act immediately” to stop Israel’s response to its October 7 massacre.
Israel has vowed to destroy the Palestinian terror organization while minimizing harm to Gaza civilians.
On Friday evening, terrorists in Gaza launched a series of rocket barrages into Israel, targeting southern and central Israeli cities. A foreign worker was moderately wounded after a rocket landed in agricultural land near Rishon Lezion, according to medics.
In Sderot, a pair of rockets fired from Gaza slammed into a home and an outdoor shelter. Some damage was caused but no one was harmed.
Gazan terrorists have launched thousands of rockets at Israel since October 7, killing and wounding dozens, and sending hundreds of thousands running for shelter, and the education of hundreds of thousands of children disrupted as schools remain shut or in a limited format.
The Israeli military on Friday night revealed that Hamas was using Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital as a main base of operations, providing visuals and intercepted audio as evidence of the terror organization’s activities.
Hagari said Israel has intelligence that there are several tunnels leading to the underground base from outside the hospital so that Hamas officials do not need to enter the hospital to reach it. But Hagari added that there is also an entrance to the underground complex from within one of the wards.
Hagari also said Israel has “concrete evidence” that “hundreds of terrorists flooded into the hospital to hide” following the October 7 terror onslaught.
Hamas’s internal security also has a command center inside Shifa Hospital, from which it directs rocket fire on Israel and stores weapons, he added.
Overnight Thursday-Friday, Israel sent tanks, infantry forces, and Navy commandos into Gaza for a second limited incursion, the Israel Defense Forces said Friday, the second night in a row that forces briefly entered the Strip ahead of the expected full ground offensive.
The raid near the Shejaiya neighborhood in eastern Gaza City was carried out by infantry, combat engineering and armored forces, with Israeli Air Force drones and combat helicopters providing air cover, the military said.
The IDF said it carried out artillery strikes and airstrikes against sites belonging to the Hamas terror group, including anti-tank guided missile launch sites and command centers.
Several Hamas members were also hit by the forces, the IDF said, adding that all the troops left the area after several hours, and that no Israeli injuries were reported.
Additionally, the IDF said it killed the commander of Hamas’s West Khan Younis Battalion, Madhat Mubasher, in an overnight airstrike in the Gaza Strip.
The IDF said Mubasher “took part in sniper attacks and was responsible for large explosive devices [used] against IDF forces and Israeli towns.”
Also overnight, forces of the Israeli Navy’s Shayetet 13 commando unit carried out a raid in the southern Gaza Strip from the sea, the IDF said.
The forces destroyed Hamas infrastructure and operated in a compound used by the terror group’s naval commando forces, according to the IDF.
Other Navy forces participated in the mission, and all the Shayetet 13 commandos left the area and returned to Israel after the operation, the IDF added.
לוחמי שייטת 13 ביצעו במהלך הלילה פשיטה ממוקדת מהים בדרום רצועת עזה. במסגרת הפעילות, הכוחות השמידו תשתיות טרור של ארגון הטרור חמאס ופעלו במתחם המשמש את כוחות הקומנדו הימי של הארגון.
בתקיפה לקחו חלק כלי שיט נוספים של זרוע הים וכלי טיס. הכוחות יצאו מהמרחב עם סיום המשימה. pic.twitter.com/3l9Ouqi9nj
— דובר צה״ל דניאל הגרי – Daniel Hagari (@IDFSpokesperson) October 27, 2023
Hamas in a statement Friday claimed to have repelled the Israeli raid from the sea.
The IDF has for several weeks been preparing a full-scale incursion aimed at rooting out the Gaza-ruling terror group following its murderous October 7 onslaught in southern Israel.
It has pounded the Strip on an unprecedented scale in order to eliminate potential threats to ground troops once the order finally comes. The airstrikes have flattened entire neighborhoods, causing a level of destruction unseen in the last four wars between Israel and Hamas.
The IDF said Friday that over the past day, it has carried out more than 250 airstrikes against Hamas sites in the Gaza Strip, with targets including Hamas tunnels, command centers, rocket launching positions, and dozens of operatives.
צה״ל ושב”כ חיסלו הלילה את מדחת מבאשר, מפקד גדוד מערב חאן יונס בארגון הטרור חמאס. מדחת לקח חלק בפיגועי צליפה ומטענים גדולים לעבר כוחות צה״ל ולעבר יישובי ישראל.
כמו כן, ביממה האחרונה צה״ל תקף מעל ל-250 מטרות של ארגון הטרור חמאס ברצועת עזה, ביניהן, מנהרות טרור, עשרות מחבלים >> pic.twitter.com/aWBrHL2c75
— דובר צה״ל דניאל הגרי – Daniel Hagari (@IDFSpokesperson) October 27, 2023
Also Friday, the military said that at least 233 hostages were kidnapped and taken to the Gaza Strip during the devastating assault on October 7.
IDF spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said the military has notified the families of 229 hostages that their loved ones are currently being held in the enclave.
The number does not include four released hostages — mother and daughter Judith and Natalie Ra’anan, who were freed a week ago, and elderly women Yocheved Lifshitz and Nurit Cooper, freed on Monday night.
Hagari said the number is not final as the military continues to investigate new information.
However, a member of a Hamas delegation visiting Russia claimed that the terror group still does not know where all the people kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists during their attack are being held.
The Hamas official, named as Abu Hamid, claimed in an interview with Russia’s semi-official Kommersant news outlet that the terror group has always been willing to release civilians, but “needs time to find them.” He additionally claimed members of various groups are holding hostages, and that a ceasefire was needed to allow Hamas to carry out its search, find the hostages and then release them.
The updated hostage figures from the military came after Gallant on Thursday promised to make “every effort” to return the hostages as he reiterated that a ground operation was looming and vowed to win the war, asserting that the country’s next 75 years largely depend on it.
In a primetime televised address, the defense minister said: “We are in decisive moments. This is a war for our home and we will win it. It’s either us or them.”
On Wednesday, The New York Times reported that Israel had agreed to a request from the United States to temporarily delay the planned Gaza ground incursion to give Washington more time to deploy additional air defense systems to protect its troops in the region.
The US was also reportedly concerned that Israel lacks achievable military goals for its operations in Gaza, leading to fears that the IDF is not yet ready for a ground incursion.
Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry says the Israeli strikes have killed over 7,000 people, many of them children. The figures issued by the terror group cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include its own terrorists and gunmen killed in Israel and in Gaza, and the victims of what Israel says are hundreds of errant Palestinian rockets that have landed in the Strip since the war began. Israel says it killed 1,500 Hamas terrorists inside Israel on and after October 7.
Agencies and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.