Women walk past a destroyed building in the aftermath of Israeli bombing at Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on Saturday.—AFP
Women walk past a destroyed building in the aftermath of Israeli bombing at Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on Saturday.—AFP

• UN warns thousands more could die
• Hundreds of buildings destroyed as ground assault stepped up
• Hamas offers to swap prisoners with Palestinians in Israeli jails
• Erdogan calls West ‘main culprit’

JERUSALEM: Hours after Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned that the near-total telecommunications blackout in Gaza amid Israel’s relentless bombardment of the Palestinian territory risks providing cover for mass atrocities, the Jewish state army warned the residents of the besieged enclave on Saturday that the area was now a “battlefield”.

“To the residents of the Gaza Strip: The Gaza governorate (Gaza City) has become a battlefield. Shelters in northern Gaza and Gaza governorate are not safe,” the Israeli army said in leaflets dropped by fighter jets, as it urged residents to “evacuate immediately” to the south.

As the army stepped up its air campaign and ground operation in the Palestinian territory, Israel said its war had “entered a new phase”.

In a sign of escalation, a shell hit the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping mission in south Lebanon, its spokesman said in the second such incident since the conflict erupted in Gaza.

“A shell hit inside the base” in Naqura, said Andrea Tenenti, spokesperson for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. There were “no injuries but some damage”.

Indicating the Israeli aggression has started affecting bilateral relations, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said in a post on X, formerly Twitter, Tel Aviv was recalling its diplomatic staff from Turkiye after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lashed out at its attacks in Gaza.

Addressing a rally of several hundred thousand Palestinian supporters in Istanbul earlier in the day, President Erdogan said, “the main culprit behind the massacre unfolding in Gaza is the West”.

The Turkish leader had earlier said, “Israel must immediately stop this madness and end its attacks” in a post on X.

Thousands more face death

The United Nations warned tho­u­sands more civilians could die as Israel escalated ground ope­ra­tions in the Palestinian territory, while the European Union called for hostilities to stop to enable aid deliveries.

The health ministry in Gaza said Israeli strikes had killed 7,703 people, mainly civilians, with more than 3,500 of them children.

UN human rights chief Volker Turk warned of “the possibly catastrophic consequences of large-scale ground operations in Gaza”, saying “thousands more civilians” could die.

Internet access and the phone network had been lying completely cut across the Gaza Strip since Friday.

“Widespread phone and internet outages occurred in Gaza on Oct 27, 2023, amid a concerted Israeli bombardment, almost entirely cutting off the 2.2 million residents from the outside world,” HRW said in a statement.

Israeli forces had also made limited ground incursions on Wednesday and Thursday.

“We’ve entered a new phase in the war,” Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said in a video statement on Saturday.

“Last night, the ground in Gaza shook. We attacked above the ground and below the ground. We attacked…in every location,” Gallant said.

Prisoners’ release

In a significant development, Hamas on Saturday said it was ready to release the prisoners it took away during its shock attack on Oct 7 if Israel freed all Palestinians held in its prisons.

“The price to pay for the large number of enemy hostages in our hands is to empty the (Israeli) prisons of all Palestinian prisoners,” Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades spokesman Abu Obeida said in a statement broadcast by the Al-Aqsa television channel.

“If the enemy wants to close this file of detainees in one go, we are ready for it. If it wants to do it step-by-step, we are ready for that too.”

Some 229 prisoners are being held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, according to the Israeli army.

Meanwhile, Gaza Civil Defence spokesman Mahmud Bassal said “hundreds of buildings and houses were completely destroyed and thousands of other homes were damaged” in the overnight strikes.

Amid the rubble of destroyed buildings in the Al-Shati refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, Alaa Mahdi likened Israel’s bombardment to an “earthquake”.

“If it were a natural earthquake, it would have been much easier than what happened last night,” he told AFP.

“What happened last night was more like a horror movie,” Gaza City resident Jihad Mahdi told AFP. “People in the streets have become lifeless bodies walking.”

The Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades said it targeted Israeli forces in an area of northern Gaza near the border on Saturday.

Israeli warplanes flew overhead as booms were heard coming from Gaza, AFP journalists reported.

Hamas said all internet connections and communications across Gaza had been cut.

Billionaire Elon Musk on Saturday said that his Starlink satellite service would support internet access for “internationally recognised aid organisations in Gaza,” which have faced a telecommunications blackout since Friday.

AFP journalists in Gaza confirmed they were only able to communicate in limited areas where they could connect to Israeli networks across the border.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said the outage had disrupted ambulance services.

The UN humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinian territories, Lynne Hastings, said on X, that “hospitals & humanitarian operations can’t continue without communications”.

Between the bombardments and the fuel shortages, 12 of Gaza’s 35 hospitals have been forced to close.

Published in Dawn, October 29th, 2023

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