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The Israeli military said it was moving into the next phase of its ground operation in Gaza by targeting the remaining “attack tunnels” after encircling central Gaza city as Hamas warned that Israeli soldiers would return home “in black bags”.
“Today, we can confirm our ground troops were able to target offensive tunnels used for cross-border attacks on Israel by identifying them and using explosives to bomb and destroy them once and for all,” Israeli army spokesman Avichay Adraee told The National.
Hamas has built a sophisticated tunnel network under Gaza that is hundreds of kilometres long and up to 80m deep, described by one freed hostage as "a spider's web".
The Palestinian group has constructed different types of tunnels beneath the sandy 360 sq km coastal strip and its borders – including attack, smuggling, storage and operational burrows.
In preparation for the offensive, Israel has trained special tunnel fighters, including killer drones and attack dogs.
Attacking the tunnels will be the next stage of Israel's offensive, with troops currently fighting against Hamas around Gaza city.
Both aerial and ground operations in Israel’s ongoing war have intensified over the past 24 hours.
On Friday morning, Hamas fighters said they were engaged in close combat with Israeli soldiers north-west of Beit Lahia, in the north of the Gaza Strip, and had also fired missiles at Israeli military vehicles, without giving a location.
In Gaza, Mr Adraee confirmed that the Israeli army had eliminated Hamas commander Mustafa Daloul, who led the militant group’s Tal Al Hawa Battalion.
“He played a central role in managing the fight against the IDF forces in the Gaza Strip. The so-called Daloul performed several jobs in the battalion and in the Gaza City Brigade for Hamas.
The Israeli military accused Hamas on Friday of using Gaza's main hospital, Al Shifa, as a shield for tunnels and operational centres.
"Hamas has turned hospitals into command and control centres and hideouts for Hamas terrorists and commanders," said Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, Israel's chief military spokesman.
On Friday, the Israeli army released an alleged audio recording of a phone call between an official in the health ministry admitting that Hamas has fuel stocks at Al Shifa hospital. The National could not independently verify the authenticity of the recording.
Escalation on Lebanon border
Clashes across the Lebanese border between Israeli forces and Hezbollah, an ally of Hamas based in southern Lebanon, also escalated on Thursday night.
Israel said it had responded with a "broad assault" after the Iran-backed militia said it had attacked 19 Israeli positions simultaneously. Hezbollah said four fighters died in the strikes.
“Last night, IDF forces eliminated a terrorist squad in the compound of the terrorist organisation Hezbollah in Lebanese territory and damaged the terrorist infrastructure of the organisation. This operation last night was in response to the shooting that was carried out from Lebanese territory into Israeli territory,” Mr Adraee told The National.
The escalation came ahead of a planned speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Friday. It is his first public speech since Hamas attacked Israel last month, stoking fears the conflict could become a regional one.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived on his third visit to Israel since October 7 as part of a tour of the region.
Speaking alongside President Isaac Herzog, Mr Blinken said Israel "has the right and obligation to defend itself and to ensure the events of October 7 never happen again".
But he added: "At the same time let's just make clear, how Israel does this matters."