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Israel expands ground operations in Gaza war amid U.S. calls for restraint

Israeli forces fire a howitzer toward Gaza on Friday. The Israeli military announced Friday it was expanding ground operations there.  (Heidi Levine/For The Washington Post)
By Steve Hendrix, Louisa Loveluck and Fenit Nirappil Washington Post

JERUSALEM – The Israeli military said Friday that it was expanding ground operations in its attacks on the Gaza Strip, an announcement that coincided with intense bombardment across the enclave, a near-total collapse of the internet and appeals by Washington for Israel to hold off on a major ground offensive.

The scope of Israel’s latest movement of ground forces remained unclear, along with whether it marked steps toward the full-scale incursion that Israel has vowed to carry out in an attempt to crush the militant group Hamas. In recent days, Israeli ground units have conducted targeted strikes in Gaza.

An Israel Defense Forces spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, told reporters Friday that the military has “severely increased” attacks in Gaza, with air, ground and naval forces targeting Hamas positions. He stopped short of saying a major ground incursion was forthcoming or if Israeli forces had entered Gaza.

The statement came amid a widespread internet blackout that amounted to the largest disruption to communications since the war began nearly three weeks ago, with a Hamas rampage in Israel on Oct. 7 that claimed more than 1,400 lives and left more than 200 hostages in the militants’ hands.

Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, said forces have conducted targeted raids inside the strip in the past few days with the aim of “preparing the ground for future stages” of the operation.

Earlier Friday, a pre-dawn deployment of armored vehicles into Gaza marked Israel’s largest ground operation in the area in years. Civilians inside Gaza reported some of the heaviest bombardments in days.

The escalation of military force comes as the United States and other governments have urged Israel to hold off on a major ground offensive and allow “humanitarian pauses” in airstrikes to let a steady flow of aid enter Gaza and permit American and other foreign citizens to exit into Egypt.

The Biden administration also seeks to advance negotiations to free more hostages.

But Israeli officials told local media that they believed the talks – led by Qatar as a liaison with Hamas – were being used by Hamas as a stalling tactic. So far, four captives have been released.

John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, declined to say whether the United States knew Friday that Israel was about to widen its operations, how long the conflict could last or whether Israel’s expansion of the conflict now hurts hostage recovery efforts.

“All I can tell you is we want to see the hostages released,” he said. But ultimately, Kirby said, the Israelis are going to make their own decisions on the battlefield and answer for them.

“They have to drive the strategy that they have developed, operationally and then tactically,” he said.

A breakdown in communications is obscuring conditions on the ground in Gaza. Reporters for media outlets including the Washington Post have lost contact with local colleagues. The Palestine Red Crescent Society, a humanitarian organization, said it was unable to reach its medical teams. Repeated local calls to Palestinian cellphone networks in the coastal enclave did not go through.

The NetBlocks monitoring group said Friday that it had observed a “total or near-total blackout of internet service,” the largest single disruption since hostilities began.

The outage probably means that more than 1 million displaced Gazans – already running out of food and water – have lost touch with scattered family members and the outside world amid some of the most intense bombardment of the conflict.

The largest Palestinian telecoms network, Jawwal, said air raids had caused the destruction of “all international lines linking Gaza to the outside world.” Another major provider, NetStream, went dark Thursday night after reporting that it was running out of fuel to power its service.

Amanda Meng, a research scientist with the Internet Outage Detection and Analysis project at the Georgia Institute of Technology, wrote in an email that only 7% of networks in Gaza were responding to the project’s pings, down from 15% just a few hours earlier. Connectivity in the Gaza Strip had declined in steps since the Oct. 7 attacks, before which it had been at almost 90%.

Hamas issued a statement accusing Israel of cutting the internet to keep the devastation from the air attacks “from the eyes of the press and the world.”

At the United Nations, the General Assembly overwhelmingly adopted an Arab-sponsored, nonbinding resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza. The body rejected a proposed Canadian-sponsored and U.S.-supported amendment to include specific condemnation of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the taking of hostages.

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Loveluck and Nirappil reported from Washington. Adam Taylor, Dan Lamothe and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.