The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said Saturday that its troops are deployed throughout the country and are “prepared to increase readiness for the next stages of the war—with an emphasis on a significant ground operation.”
Hundreds of thousands of IDF reservists have been called up to help implement a “wide range of offensive operative plans which include, among other things, an integrated and coordinated attack from the air, sea and land,” the Hebrew-language announcement said.
The statement cited Col. Bnei Aharon, who said, “This is our hour to stand this test, and our job is to decide and win this war.”
In a Saturday visit to Israeli troops massed near the Gaza border, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the soldiers, “You ready for the next stage? The next stage is coming.” Neither one specified what the next phase of Israel’s response to Hamas will look like. However, analysts and experts believe a ground invasion is imminent.
“With our fighters in the Gaza Strip, on the front line,” Netanyahu captioned a video posted on X (formerly Twitter). “We are all ready.”
President Biden spoke by phone on Saturday—separately—with both Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Reuters reported, citing statements from the two leaders’ offices.
Twenty-nine Americans have been killed since the war began, and 15 remain unaccounted for, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Department of State.
Thousands flee Gaza before Israel deadline
Earlier in the day, thousands of people living in northern Gaza fled south before the six-hour evacuation window ordered by Israel ended at 4 p.m. local time. Meanwhile, as the U.N. warns Israel and Hamas to halt their week-old war before things “reach a point of no return,” the Palestinian militant group claimed additional hostages it is holding in Gaza were killed in Israeli air strikes.
“The situation in the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel has reached fever pitch,” the United Nations said in a statement from Geneva. “The United Nations and its Member States must intensify efforts to mediate an immediate ceasefire between the parties, before we reach a point of no return.
Over the past week, some 400,000 Palestinians had already been internally displaced, according to U.N. figures.
The U.S. government has advised its citizens feeling Gaza to move south toward the Rafah border crossing with Egypt to be ready for its possible reopening.
“We have been trying to facilitate access for it to be open from 12 to five today. The Egyptians, the Israelis and the Qataris have been working with us on that,” Reuters reported the official as telling journalists traveling with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The Egyptian government has prevented Palestinians from crossing into Egypt from Gaza, according to CBS News, which said the State Department has been in contact with up to 600 Palestinian-Americans who want to leave.
Hamas says hostages have been killed
Hamas announced that nine hostages being held in Gaza, including four unidentified foreigners, were killed in Israeli air strikes. On Friday, Hamas said nine hostages had been killed by Israeli bombing runs. The claims have thus far been impossible to verify. However, Israeli jets over the past seven days have dropped massive amounts of ordnance on Gaza, killing more than 1,900 people, according to Palestinian authorities.
In leaflets and announcements on social media, the Israeli military on Saturday instructed about 1.1 million Gazans in the north to leave their homes, and cut off all air, land, and sea routes in and out. Electricity in northern Gaza has been shut off, the internet has gone dark, and clean water is reportedly scarce. Amid the chaos, Israel Defense Forces jets have relentlessly pounded the area since a surprise attack last Saturday by armed Hamas militants left some 1,300 people dead. The death toll in Gaza as of this afternoon was 2,200, according to Reuters.
During last weekend’s incursion, Hamas also kidnapped more than 100 people, among them a number of dual citizens and foreign nationals. Earlier this week, the group threatened to kill a hostage every time Israel struck Gaza “without warning.” And although several hostages have been reported dead, the precise circumstances surrounding their deaths is not yet known.
Hamas, which is backed by Iran, has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. But Iranian leaders have denied any involvement in last Saturday’s attack.
“Some supporters and some individuals from the occupying regime have made false claims in recent days blaming Iran for these actions,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Tuesday at a military academy graduation ceremony in Tehran. “They are mistaken. We defend Palestine; we support the designers and intelligent youth of Palestine, but these are the works of Palestinians themselves.”
Israel admits its intelligence was caught napping
For their part, Israel’s vaunted intelligence services were somehow caught flat-footed by the Hamas attack.
“It’s my mistake, and it reflects the mistakes of all those making [intelligence] assessments,” Israeli National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said at a press briefing, saying he and others “really believed that Hamas learned the lesson” from the losses it took battling Israeli forces in 2021.
The scene on the ground today was chaotic, according to the Associated Press. Families driving cars, trucks, and donkey carts took to the main road out of Gaza City, desperately trying to find a safe place to stay, the news agency reported. Life has very quickly become almost unbearable for many; one 25-year-old expectant mother said she has had so little to drink, she urinates only every two days. In certain areas, the water coming out of people’s taps is now mixed with seawater. Still, people have no choice but to drink it, 28-year-old Mohammed Ibrahim told the AP.
At least 70 evacuees were killed by Israeli jets fired on a group of vehicles driving south, according to The New York Times. The paper quoted a 56-year-old Palestinian doctor in Gaza City who said she was concerned the evacuation could portend a more permanent situation.
“As I’m packing my things, I’m wondering: Is this really another nakba?” Dr. Arwa el-Rayes said, referring to the mass displacement of Palestinians during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
The evacuation order brought condemnation from Amnesty International, which said Israeli forces have “sowed panic among the population and left thousands of internally displaced Palestinians now sleeping on the streets, not knowing where to flee to or where they can find safety.” amid a relentless bombing campaign by Israel and merciless collective punishment measures. This order must be rescinded immediately,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.
IDF spokesman Jonathan Conricus maintained the evacuation was necessary to prevent Hamas from using civilians as human shields. He said those who fled will be able to return “only when we tell them that it is safe to do so.”
It is unknown how many people in Gaza’s north disobeyed the Israeli order and remain in the area.