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Israel has pressed on with its ground offensive in Gaza for a second night as prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the country had launched a new phase of its “long and hard” war to destroy Hamas.

Daniel Hagari, IDF spokesman, said on Sunday that Israel had sent more troops into Gaza overnight and combat operations were continuing in the north of the strip. “We are advancing in the stages of the war, according to our plan,” he said. “We are gradually expanding our ground operations.”

He was speaking as phone and internet connections were restored in Gaza, two days after Israeli air strikes knocked out nearly all communications in the besieged territory, leaving many residents without contact to the outside world.

The UN said thousands of desperate Palestinians were breaking into its warehouses in Gaza to seize flour and other staples, in a sign that civil order was starting to break down in the enclave.

Israel has bombarded Gaza for three weeks since the Hamas attack on the country on October 7 in which at least 1,400 Israelis were killed, the deadliest day in the nation’s 75-year history. Hamas also took 229 hostages, both civilians and soldiers, whom it continues to hold.

At least 7,703 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since the war began, according to the UN, citing information from the health ministry in the Hamas-controlled territory.

Israel dispatched troops and tanks into Gaza on Friday night and is holding multiple positions in the territory. The ground operation was accompanied by what the UN described as the “most intense Israeli air strikes and artillery shelling” since the start of the war.

UNRWA, the main UN agency providing relief to Palestinians in Gaza, said thousands of people had broken into its warehouses and distribution centres in the middle and southern areas of the strip, taking wheat flour and other basic survival items like hygiene supplies.

Thomas White, director of UNRWA affairs in Gaza, called it “a worrying sign that civil order is starting to break down”.

In the latest evidence that the conflict risks inflaming broader Middle East tensions, the Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi said on social media platform X, formerly Twitter, that Israel’s “crimes have crossed the red lines, which may force everyone to take action”.

Palestinians carry a casualty after Israeli air strikes in Gaza City © Mutasem Murtaja/Reuters

At a press conference in Jerusalem late on Saturday evening, Netanyahu said the war had now entered its “second stage”. “Its aims are clear — the destruction of Hamas’ military and governmental capabilities and the return of the hostages,” he said.

He described the conflict as a “war for Israel’s very existence”. “We always said: ‘Never again’. Never again is now.”

But he stopped short of describing the offensive as a full-scale invasion, saying only that Israel had decided to “expand ground operations” in Gaza and had sent “additional ground forces” in.

Amos Yadlin, a retired general and ex-head of military intelligence, said that while the operations were not the blitzkrieg many had predicted, they still marked the beginning of a long-signalled ground invasion.

“It is inch by inch, metre by metre,” he said. “It is low-intensity conflict, and it started last night.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said thousands of families in Gaza were “sleeping in makeshift shelters or out in the open with little food and water”. It said hospitals were on the verge of collapse and wastewater plants were no longer functioning.

Israel has blocked most humanitarian aid from entering Gaza, allowing in only a small number of trucks each day that the UN and other agencies said were inadequate for Gaza’s 2.3mn people.

“I am shocked by the intolerable level of human suffering and urge the parties to the conflict to de-escalate now,” said Mirjana Spoljaric, ICRC president. “It is unacceptable that civilians have no safe place to go in Gaza amid the massive bombardments and with a military siege in place there is also no adequate humanitarian response currently possible.”

But Colonel Elad Goren, head of Cogat, the Israeli military body responsible for civil affairs in the Palestinian territories, disputed international aid groups’ descriptions of the situation in Gaza.

Palestinians wait at a water point to refill containers © Abed Rahim Khatib/dpa

He said there was enough food inside the besieged territory for “weeks to come”, that medical supplies were still readily available and that water was ‘fully accessible”, primarily in southern Gaza.

“These aren’t the normal levels [of water for Gaza] but it answers basic humanitarian needs,” he said. He added that Israel was planning to “dramatically increase” the amount of humanitarian assistance allowed into Gaza from Egypt in the coming week.

Netanyahu faces a huge dilemma in stepping up the ground offensive: the families of hostages, whom the prime minister met on Saturday evening, have warned that an invasion could endanger their lives.

“Any move considered [should] take into account the wellbeing of our loved ones,” said Meirav Leshem Gonen, the mother of 23-year-old Romi Leshem, who was snatched from a music festival.

Hamas media groups quoted Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s top leader in Gaza, as saying that the organisation was ready to release the hostages in return for Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails.

But Hagari dismissed the offer as “psychological terror”. “It has one goal: to manipulate Israeli civilians,” he said.

Additional reporting by Neri Zilber in Tel Aviv

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