By James Mackenzie
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli air and ground forces widened their attacks on Hamas in the Gaza Strip on Friday, the military said, and the Palestinian militant group said its fighters were clashing with Israeli troops in areas near the border with Israel.
The United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly backed a resolution drafted by Arab states calling for an immediate humanitarian truce and demanded aid access to the besieged territory and protection of civilians.
While not binding, the resolution carries political weight, reflecting the global mood. It passed to a round of applause with 120 votes in favour, while 45 abstained and 14 - including Israel and the United States - voted no.
In Gaza, local telecoms firms and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society said internet and mobile phone services were cut off.
"In the last hours, we intensified the attacks in Gaza," Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, spokesman for Israel's military, told a televised news briefing after dark on Friday. Israel's air force was conducting extensive strikes on tunnels and other infrastructure, he said.
"In addition to the attacks carried out in the last few days, ground forces are expanding their operations tonight," he said, raising the question of whether a long-anticipated ground invasion of Gaza may be beginning.
Hamas militants were clashing with Israeli troops in Gaza's northeastern town of Beit Hanoun and in the central area of Al-Bureij, the militant group's armed wing said.
White House national security spokesperson John Kirby would not comment on the expanded ground operation. But he said Washington supported Israel's right to defend itself and added: "We're not drawing red lines for Israel."
Mark Regev, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told MSNBC that Israel was starting its payback against Hamas and "Gaza will feel our wrath tonight"
"They will continue to be on the receiving end of our military blows until we have dismantled their military machine and dissolve their political structure in Gaza," he told Fox News. "When this is over, Gaza will be very different."
Israeli ground forces had massed outside Gaza, where Israel has been conducting an intense campaign of aerial bombardment since a deadly Oct. 7 attack by hundreds of Hamas gunmen, who rampaged through Israeli communities near the strip, killing 1,400 people and dragging more than 200 into captivity.
A ground invasion would exacerbate what aid groups call a humanitarian crisis in the territory following days of aerial bombardment that Palestinian health authorities in Hamas-run Gaza say have killed more than 7,000 Palestinians.
COMMUNICATIONS HAMPERED, 'HUMANITARIAN PAUSE' SOUGHT
Paltel, the largest telecommunications provider in Gaza said, "All telecommunication services including landline, mobile, and internet have been lost in the Gaza Strip" due to a continuous intensive bombardment.
"Gaza is currently blacked out," it said.
The Red Crescent Society said it had completely lost contact with its Gaza operations room and its teams operating there, and Hamas-affiliated media published a statement from Gaza's Hamas-run government saying that rescue crews were unable to receive emergency calls.
Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) said on the social media platform X it had been unable to reach some Palestinian colleagues, and added: "We are particularly worried for the patients, medical staff and thousands of families taking shelter at Al Shifa hospital and other health facilities."
The head of the U.N. Children's Fund UNICEF, Catherine Russell, said her agency too could no longer communicate with staff in Gaza.
"I'm extremely concerned about their safety and another night of unspeakable horror for 1M children in #Gaza," she posted on X. "All humanitarians and the children and families they serve MUST be protected.
While Israel announced a step-up in operations, White House spokesman Kirby said the U.S. did support a pause in Israeli military activity in Gaza to get humanitarian aid, fuel and electricity to civilians there.
Kirby also said that if getting more than 200 hostages abducted by Hamas out of Gaza required a localized temporary pause, then the U.S. supported that.
Israel had said it was preparing a ground invasion of Gaza, but has been urged by the U.S. and Arab countries to delay an operation that would multiply the number of civilian casualties in the densely populated coastal strip and might ignite a wider conflict.
Concerns about a risk of a wider Middle East conflict have risen in recent days with the U.S. dispatching more military assets to the region as Israel pummelled targets in Gaza and Hamas supporters in Lebanon and Syria.
Oil prices climbed about 3% to a one-week high on Friday on worries that tensions in Israel and Gaza could spread into a wider conflict that could disrupt global crude supplies.
Israeli leaders have vowed to wipe out Hamas, the Islamist movement that has run Gaza since 2007, and kill the leaders and planners of the Oct. 7 assault, undeterred by pleas from humanitarian agencies to spare the civilian population.
SHATTERED INFRASTRUCTURE, POWER CUT
Much of the infrastructure of Gaza, which has been living under blockade by Israel and Egypt since 2007, has been shattered by the Israeli bombing.
Power has been cut for days, crippling treatment facilities and depriving Gazans of fresh water, while half of its housing stock has been damaged and 20,000 residential units destroyed or rendered uninhabitable, according to the Hamas media office.
Palestinians said they received renewed Israeli military warnings to move from Gaza's north to the south to avoid the deadliest theatre of the war.
Gazans say making the journey south remains highly risky amid air strikes and that southern areas have also been bombed.
Many families have refused to leave, fearing a repeat of the experience of previous wars with Israel when Palestinians who left their homes and land were never able to return.
Strategically, Gaza operations may be complicated by the need to protect Israel's northern border with southern Lebanon and Syria, where Israeli forces have been engaged in days of sporadic cross-border fire.
Israel and its U.S. ally have warned Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants in Lebanon not to intervene and Washington has dispatched two aircraft carriers to the region to reinforce the message.
Hamas, backed by Israel's main regional enemy Iran, has had years to prepare its defences. Over the years, Israel has uncovered a sophisticated network of tunnels and Hamas has fired missiles at Israel since launching this month's attack.
Israel's military has told international news organisations Reuters and Agence France Presse that it cannot guarantee the safety of their journalists operating in the Gaza Strip, under Israeli bombardment and siege for almost three weeks.
(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Ahmed Mohamed Hassan, Tala Ramadan, Emily Rose, Adam Makary, Jeff Mason, Phil Stewart, Michelle Nichols, Gabriela Baczynska and Andrew Gray; Writing by Grant McCool, Michael Perry, Kevin Liffey and Giles Elgood and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Philippa Fletcher, Toby Chopra, Howard Goller and Cynthia Osterman)