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Israel’s military significantly expanded its offensive in the Gaza Strip on Friday evening, ramping up ground operations in the Palestinian enclave and launching an intense air bombardment that knocked out its telecommunications systems.
The escalation comes 48 hours after Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israel prime minister, told a national audience that his government was preparing a “ground invasion” of Gaza. But it remained unclear on Friday evening whether the intensification of military operations was the prelude for a wider war.
Still, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, a spokesman for Israel’s military, said that the Israel Defense Forces had been carrying out limited incursions into Gaza over the previous two nights and were now “expanding” operations on the ground.
“In recent hours, we have intensified attacks on Gaza. The air force is widely attacking subterranean targets and terror targets in a significant fashion,” he said in a briefing. “In continuation with the offensive operations that we have done in recent days, ground forces are expanding their ground operations this evening.”
Brent crude, the international benchmark, rose more than 3 per cent to $90.60 a barrel shortly after Israel announced the expanded military operations. West Texas Intermediate, the US marker, rose by a similar margin to $85.62.
While Israel does not produce significant volumes of oil, traders fret that an escalation of the conflict could draw in other countries in the Arab world, such as Iran, leading to potential supply disruption.
In recent days, the US and Israel have warned Iran and its proxies not to escalate the conflict, after the Hizbollah militant group in southern Lebanon exchanged cross-border fire with Israeli forces, and Houthi militants in Yemen launched missiles the US said were likely to have been aimed at Israel.
The US said on Thursday that it struck two facilities in eastern Syria it identified as being linked to Iran-backed militias, following more than a dozen attacks on American forces in the region in recent weeks.
Israel called up 360,000 soldiers and deployed many of them close to Gaza in the wake of Hamas’s attack on October 7, which sent shockwaves through Israel, and inflicted the highest single death toll since the state was founded in 1948.
More than 1,400 people were killed and more than 5,400 were injured according to Israeli officials, while Hamas militants also seized more than 200 hostages. Israeli counterstrikes on Gaza have killed more than 7,300 people and injured around 19,000, according to Palestinian officials.
Netanyahu has been under pressure over his war plans, with government hardliners demanding a more aggressive response to Hamas’s assault while other voices, including in western capitals, urged Israel to delay any ground invasion in order to allow time for the hostages to be extricated from Gaza.
Paltel, the Palestinian telecoms company, said the Israeli bombardment on Friday night had destroyed “all remaining connections between Gaza and the outside world”.
“This has led to the complete interruption of comms service in Gaza,” it said.
The Palestinian Red Crescent said it had lost contact with its operations room in Gaza, and was “deeply concerned about the ability of our teams to continue providing their emergency medical services”.
In addition to its three-week-long bombardment, Israel has also severely limited supplies of electricity, water, fuel and food to Gaza, exacerbating already dire humanitarian conditions in the strip, which it and Egypt have subjected to a crippling blockade since Hamas seized power in 2007.
Philippe Lazzarini, the head of UNRWA, the UN’s aid agency for Palestinians, said on Friday that the last public services and civil order in the territory, which is home to 2.3mn people, were “collapsing”, while the streets were overflowing with sewage.
“Our aid operation is crumbling and for the first time ever, [UN staff] report that now people are hungry,” Lazzarini said, adding that the small aid convoys that Israel has permitted to enter Gaza in recent days were “crumbs that will not make a difference to 2mn people”.
More than 1.4mn people have been displaced and 641,000 are sheltering in UN-designated emergency facilities, according to UNRWA.
Additional reporting by Myles McCormick in Houston