Israeli ground forces are inside Gaza after entering the enclave overnight, as Palestinians experienced what they have described as the most intense round of airstrikes since Israel began its retaliation against Hamas’ October 7 terror attack.
Israeli forces “went into the Gaza Strip and expanded the ground operation where infantry, armor and engineer units and artillery with heavy fire are taking part,” Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Saturday morning.
“The forces are in the field and continue the fighting,” he added, without giving further details.
Hagari’s words confirm the military operation has undergone a significant expansion after what it had earlier described as two “targeted raids,” which took place on Wednesday night and Thursday night. Both those raids saw ground forces withdraw after a few hours.
However, it does not appear as though any major ground offensive aimed at seizing and holding significant amounts of the territory is yet underway. In a fresh call for Gazans to move south, the IDF spoke of an “impending” operation.
Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said his country had entered “a new phase in the war.”
“Tonight, the ground in Gaza shook,” he said in a statement.
“We attacked above ground and below ground. We attacked terrorist operatives at all levels, in all places. The instructions to our forces are clear: the operation will continue until a new order is given.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday that the goals of this stage of the war are to destroy Hamas and return the more than 200 hostages the militant group took on October 7 and still holds in Gaza.
Netanyahu confirmed he spoke with family members of the hostages and said he vowed to them that he would exhaust all options to return their loved ones home.
Near the Gaza border, staging grounds once teeming with hundreds of Israeli tanks, armored personnel carriers and bulldozers have mostly emptied out when a CNN team visited.
CNN also observed some tank units returning from the direction of Gaza, back to their forward operating positions.
The IDF said on Saturday that its warplanes hit 150 underground targets in the north of the enclave, striking what it called terror tunnels and underground combat spaces and killing several Hamas operatives.
Hagari said Gazans who had moved south of Wadi Gaza, a waterway bisecting the center of the strip, were in an area he called a “protected space,” and would receive more food, water and medicine today, though he did not give any details.
More than 2 million people live in the enclave, which spans just 140 square miles and is one of the most densely-populated places on Earth. For weeks, people living in the territory have faced Israeli airstrikes and a growing humanitarian situation, with shortages of water, food and fuel.
At least 7,650 people have been killed and more than 19,450 more injured in Israeli attacks on Gaza since October 7, according to the latest figures released by the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Ramallah, drawn from sources in the Hamas-controlled enclave.
Mourning in Gaza
Gazans mourned the loss of their loved ones on Saturday following a night of intense Israeli airstrikes, with many gathering at Al Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Deir al Balah in central Gaza.
Video captured by CNN shows multiple bodies, including those of children, covered in white shrouds or thick blankets, placed on the ground in the hospital yard.
Dr. Khalil Al-Dikran told CNN the hospital had received 22 bodies overnight and hundreds of injured. He said people had brought the dead and the wounded to hospital using everything from bikes, cars and donkey carts.
Hospitals have lost contact with each other, he said, after communications networks were cut across the strip. “People are desperate to find some news about their loved ones and their families,” he added.
Al-Dikran said that after a pause of several hours, airstrikes had resumed again in central and northern Gaza, adding that artillery fire had continued uninterrupted through the night.
The IDF on Saturday conducted heavy artillery strikes against northern Gaza, with multiple explosions heard every minute.
A CNN team on the ground at an Israeli checkpoint near the strip perimeter witnessed intense and continuous explosions and air power. Smoke could also be seen rising from the enclave. Some of the explosions were so strong that the impact could be felt physically where the team was, around a kilometer (less than a mile) from the border.
The IDF reserve soldiers manning the position told CNN that Friday night was by far the most intense night of bombing.
Israeli troops have cleared out a large perimeter around the Gaza Strip, fearing incoming anti-tank weapons.
Aid agencies lose contact
Communications in the enclave have been severely disrupted, leaving aid agencies out of touch with their staff on the ground.
The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, on Saturday morning that reports of the intense bombardment are “extremely distressing.” He added: “We are still out of touch with our staff and health facilities. I’m worried about their safety.”
He said that it is “not possible” to evacuate patients or find safe shelter under such circumstances, and the “blackout is also making it impossible for ambulances to reach the injured.”
The WHO posted on social media that health workers, patients and civilians in Gaza spent the night “in darkness and fear” as they were “subject to a total communication and electrical blackout.”
The organization said hospitals across Gaza are operating at maximum capacity, unable to take in new patients whilst also “sheltering thousands of civilians.”
“There are more [people] wounded every hour,” the WHO said. “But ambulances cannot reach them in the communications blackout. Morgues are full. More than half of the dead are women and children.”
It reiterated a call for “immediate humanitarian ceasefire,” adding that safe passage must also be ensured for “desperately needed medical supplies, fuel, water and food into and across Gaza.”
Several United Nations agencies have also reported losing contact with their local staff in Gaza.
Elon Musk said SpaceX’s Starlink satellite communications network would support internet connectivity for internationally recognized relief organizations in the besieged enclave.
In response, Israel’s Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi said that the government “will use all means at its disposal to fight this.” In a statement posted on X, Karhi wrote there is “no doubt” that the service would be used by Hamas “for terrorist activities.”
While communications are largely severed within the territory, according to the local telecoms provider Jawwal, those with Israeli or international SIMs appear to have some patchy connections.
Fate of hostages remains unclear
The expanded operation has left families of the more than 200 hostages taken to Gaza fearful for their loved ones.
A group lobbying for the families of Israeli hostages spoke of “the most terrible of all nights” as emotions spiked with the IDF’s expansion of its ground operation.
“Anxiety, frustration, and especially enormous anger that none of the war cabinet bothered to meet with the families of the hostages to explain one thing – whether the ground operation endangers the well-being of the 229 hostages in Gaza,” said the Hostages and Missing Persons Families Forum.
Hagari told reporters on Friday that the IDF had notified the families of hostages about the expanded operations and reiterated the military was “committed to the national task of returning all hostages.”
Prior to the expanded ground campaign, diplomatic sources familiar with the Qatar-led negotiations to release hostages told CNN that there has been “significant progress” in the talks but issues still remained.
Majed Al-Ansari, the spokesperson for Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and advisor to the Qatari Prime Minister, told CNN’s Becky Anderson on Saturday that the escalation on the ground is making the situation “considerably more difficult.”
Qatar and Egypt have been mediating between Israel, the US and Hamas to release the hostages held by the militant group. Four hostages have been freed so far.
The White House said on Friday it was having “active conversations” with Israel about a humanitarian pause to help get hostages out of Gaza.
In a Saturday news conference, families of the hostages said they told Netanyahu in a meeting they would accept an “everyone in return for everyone” deal, which would secure the immediate release of all hostages.
“We clarified to the Prime Minister that an immediate exchange of everyone for everyone is a deal the families would consider and one that has broad support from all of Israel,” family representatives said in a statement. “Bring everyone home now.”
Such an agreement would involve the release of hostages in exchange for Palestinians currently held in Israeli prisons. The Palestinian Prisoner’s Club, a non-governmental organization dedicated to addressing the concerns of Palestinian detainees in Israeli detention centers, estimates that this amounts to 6,630 people.
On Saturday, Hamas released a statement stating the group was “immediately ready” to engage in such a comprehensive trade, though this type of deal would be hugely controversial in Israel.
This story has been updated with additional developments.
CNN’s Jomana Karadsheh, Ido Soen, Adi Kopelwitz, Jen Deaton, Catherine Nicholls, Jeremy Diamond, Mike Schwartz, Hovsep Nalbandian, Matthias Somm, Kevin Liptak and Kyle Blaine contributed reporting.
For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com