By NAJIB JOBAIN and SAMY MAGDY
RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Palestinians reported another widespread outage of internet and phone service in Gaza early Wednesday, hours after Israeli airstrikes leveled apartment buildings near Gaza City and as ground troops battled Hamas militants inside the besieged territory.
Humanitarian aid agencies have warned that such blackouts severely disrupt their work in an already dire situation in Gaza, where more than half of the population of 2.3 million Palestinians has been displaced and basic supplies are running low more than three weeks into the war triggered by Hamas’ bloody Oct. 7 rampage into southern Israel.
Dozens of people could be seen entering the Rafah crossing from Gaza to Egypt on Wednesday. It appeared to be the first time foreign passport holders have been allowed to leave the besieged territory since the start of the war.
Hundreds have gathered at the crossing at different times in recent weeks, but have not been allowed out due to disagreements among Egypt, Israel and Hamas. No one has been allowed to leave Gaza, except for four hostages released by Hamas. Another captive was rescued by Israeli forces earlier this week.
Egyptian state-run media reported that more than 80 wounded Palestinians would be brought from Gaza to Egypt on Wednesday for medical treatment. Ambulances were seen entering the Rafah crossing from the Egyptian side, and a field hospital has been set up in the nearby town of Sheikh Zuweid.
The Palestinian crossing authority said more than 400 foreign passport holders would be permitted to leave Gaza on Wednesday. Egypt has said it will not accept an influx of Palestinian refugees because of fears Israel will not allow them to return to Gaza after the war.
The Palestinian telecoms company Paltel reported a “complete disruption” of internet and mobile phone services in Gaza, marking the second time residents were largely cut off from the world. Communications also went down over the weekend, as Israeli troops pushed into Gaza in larger numbers.
Attempts to reach Gaza residents by phone were unsuccessful early Wednesday. Internet-access advocacy group NetBlocks.org confirmed that Gaza “is in the midst of a total or near-total telecoms blackout consistent with” the weekend blackout.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said the communication blackout would disrupt the work of first responders and make it harder for civilians to seek safety. “Even the potentially life-saving act of calling an ambulance becomes impossible,” said Jessica Moussan, an ICRC spokesperson.
On Tuesday, a barrage of airstrikes leveled apartment buildings in a refugee camp near Gaza City. Rescuers frantically dug through the destruction to pull men, women and children from the rubble. The director of a nearby hospital where casualties were taken, Dr. Atef Al-Kahlot, said hundreds of people were wounded or killed, but the exact toll was not yet known.
Israel said the strike, which targeted senior Hamas military leader Ibrahim Biari, destroyed a militant command center and an underground tunnel network, and killed dozens of other fighters. Military spokesman Jonathan Conricus said Biari had also been a key planner of the Oct. 7 attack, and that the apartment buildings collapsed only because the underground Hamas complex had been destroyed.
Neither side’s account could be independently confirmed.
In recent days, Israeli troops have advanced toward the outskirts of Gaza City from the north and east. Israeli officials say Hamas’ military infrastructure, including hundreds of kilometers (miles) of tunnels, is concentrated in the city, which was home to some 650,000 people before the war.
Israel has been vague about its operations in Gaza, but residents and spokesmen for militant groups say troops appear to be trying to take control of the two main north-south roads.
An estimated 800,000 Palestinians have fled south from Gaza City and other northern areas following Israeli orders to evacuate, but hundreds of thousands remain in the north, including many who left and later returned because Israel is also carrying out airstrikes in the south.
Gaza has been sealed off since the start of the war, causing shortages of food, water, medicine and fuel. Israel has allowed international aid groups to send more than 200 trucks carrying food and medicine to enter from Egypt over the past 10 days, but aid workers say it’s not nearly enough.
Israel has barred fuel imports, leading to a territory-wide blackout and warnings from hospitals that their emergency generators may soon shut down, putting patients on life support at risk. Israel says it won’t allow fuel to enter because Hamas would confiscate it to use for military purposes.
The strike in Jabaliya underlined the anticipated surge in casualties on both sides as Israeli troops advance toward dense residential neighborhoods. The military confirmed Wednesday that nine soldiers were killed in fighting in northern Gaza, bringing the total of military casualties since the start of the ground operation to 11.
Israel has vowed to crush Hamas’ ability to govern Gaza or threaten it, while also saying it does not plan to reoccupy the territory, from which it withdrew soldiers and settlers in 2005. But it has said little about who would govern Gaza afterwards.
In congressional testimony on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested that “at some point, what would make the most sense is for an effective and revitalized Palestinian Authority to have governance and ultimately security responsibility for Gaza.”
Hamas drove PA forces out of Gaza in a week of heavy fighting in 2007, leaving it with limited authority over parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Palestinian support for the President Mahmoud Abbas has plunged since then, with many Palestinians dismissing the PA as little more than a security subcontractor for Israel, because it helps suppress Hamas and other militant groups.
Returning to Gaza “on the back of an Israeli tank,” as Palestinians routinely phrase it, would be a fatal blow to the PA’s legitimacy. The Palestinians have not held national elections in 17 years, and the U.S. and Israel are unlikely to support any vote in which Hamas could gain power, as it did in 2006.
More than 8,500 Palestinians have been killed in the war, mostly women and minors, the Gaza Health Ministry said Tuesday, without providing a breakdown between civilians and fighters. The figure is without precedent in decades of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Over 1,400 people have died on the Israeli side, mainly civilians killed during Hamas’ initial attack, also an unprecedented figure. Palestinian militants also abducted around 240 people during their incursion and have continued firing rockets into Israel.
The war has also threatened to ignite fighting on other fronts. Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group have traded fire daily along the border, and Israel and the U.S. have struck targets in Syria linked to Iran, which supports Hamas, Hezbollah and other armed groups in the region.
The military said it shot down what appeared to be a drone near the southernmost city of Eilat and intercepted a missile over the Red Sea on Tuesday, neither of which entered Israeli airspace.
Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen later claimed they fired ballistic missiles and drones at Israel, saying it was their third such operation and threatening more. Israel said Wednesday that it had dispatched navy missile boats to the Red Sea.
Magdy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Wafaa Shurafa in Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip, and Amy Teibel in Jerusalem, contributed to this report.
Full AP coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war.