JERUSALEM – The Israeli military said its forces had split the Gaza Strip in two after a night of heavy airstrikes, a move that Israel said would make it more difficult for Hamas to control the enclave.
Israeli officials made the announcement after two Israeli columns surrounded Gaza City, which is densely populated and in the northern half of the Gaza Strip, effectively cutting it off from the south. Israeli officials have described the city as a Hamas stronghold.
“Essentially today there is a northern Gaza and a southern Gaza,” Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the Israeli military’s chief spokesperson, said in a late-night briefing Sunday. Despite the claim, Israeli leaders have not talked about partitioning Gaza or maintaining control over the territory, which its forces vacated in 2005.
The extent of the fighting was unclear because of a communications blackout in Gaza, the third since the start of the war nearly one month ago.
Israel said it had struck 450 targets overnight in Gaza, and Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, an Israeli military spokesperson, said Monday that Israeli infantry units were engaged in “close-quarters urban warfare.” Hagari said Sunday night that Israeli troops were “carrying out a large attack on terrorist infrastructure both below and above ground.”
Wafa, the official Palestinian news agency, reported “violent explosions and an unprecedented bombardment by Israeli aircraft and warships,” saying the attacks targeted the vicinities of hospitals and had killed and injured dozens of people.
While Israel says it has been targeting Hamas and its network of tunnels and command posts, weeks of airstrikes and shellings have reduced neighborhoods to rubble and have led to a mounting civilian death toll. More than 10,000 people have been killed in Gaza since Israel’s bombardment began almost a month ago, according to the Gaza Health Ministry in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.
A Pentagon spokesperson, Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, said Monday that the U.S. assessed the civilian toll was in “the thousands,” but said he did not have a precise estimate.
Addressing concerns that the war could spiral into a broader regional conflict, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Turkey on Monday in the final stop on a quick tour of the Middle East that included Tel Aviv, Israel, the West Bank and Baghdad.
Blinken said efforts by the Biden administration to increase the flow of humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip and to prevent Iran and its proxies from expanding the conflict were making progress.
“We’re working, as I said, very aggressively on getting more humanitarian assistance into Gaza,” Blinken told reporters in Ankara, where he met with Turkey’s foreign minister, Hakan Fidan, before departing for Tokyo. “I think you’ll see in the days ahead that that assistance can expand in significant ways.”
King Abdullah II of Jordan said Monday that his country’s air force dropped “urgent medical aid” to a field hospital operated by the kingdom in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli military confirmed the unusual move and said in a statement it had been a coordinated effort between the neighboring nations.
Blinken said progress had been made, with help from Turkey and other countries, on preventing the conflict from expanding into a wider war.
The U.S. has been particularly focused on deterring Iran from joining the conflict. The U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. forces in the region, announced Sunday it had dispatched a nuclear-powered attack submarine to the region, adding to the U.S. military presence in the Middle East.
“Sometimes the absence of something bad happening may not be the most obvious evidence of progress, but it is,” Blinken said.
Blinken has had less success in persuading Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to agree to “humanitarian pauses” in the fighting, which the Biden administration believes could help facilitate the flow of aid and make it easier for foreign nationals to leave Gaza.
During a meeting with Blinken in Tel Aviv on Friday, Netanyahu rebuffed the idea of “humanitarian pauses,” insisting that Hamas first release the more than 200 hostages that it and other groups have been holding since Oct. 7, when Hamas gunmen killed more than 1,400 people in Israel.
On Monday, several hundred people, including the families of some of the hostages, protested outside Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, chanting “now” in Hebrew and demanding more be done to secure their release.
“Even if we meet our military goals,” one relative, Inbar Goldstein, told the crowd, “there can be no progress nor rebuilding without each and every one of them back.” Goldstein’s brother and his young daughter were killed in the Oct. 7 attack, and her brother’s wife and their three other children were taken hostage.
For many Palestinians with relatives in Gaza, the dread and anguish of the war have been worsened by communications blackouts like the one that cut off phone and internet service beginning Sunday night.
Many have spent the past few weeks relentlessly scrolling news sites, constantly monitoring TV and social media, and frantically messaging their relatives in the territory every time they see reports of an explosion near them. When Gaza loses internet and phone service, the fear only grows.
“I’m calling nonstop, but not even one call goes through,” Shahd Abusalama, who lives in London and whose parents live in Gaza, wrote in a text message Monday. “We’re fighting our darkest thoughts.”
Rafaat Arafat, 28, of Gaza, a doctoral student in India, said he was sleeping only about an hour a day and had completely lost his appetite because of fears over his family’s fate.
When he learned that his family’s house in Gaza had been destroyed, he was unable to reach his relatives to check if they had been inside. And when he heard that some family members had been killed, he couldn’t immediately reach anyone to confirm whether it was a distant relative or his parents.
”I cried for about two hours,” he said, adding that he had searched on Google for “homicide of the Arafat family,” but couldn’t find anything. He was last able to reach his mother two days ago.
”So many times I tried to call them,” he said. “They didn’t answer.”