TEL AVIV—Israeli tanks and infantry temporarily seized control of a strategic road linking the Gaza Strip’s north and south, a major advance that appeared aimed at encircling the enclave’s biggest population center, Gaza City.
The thrust through the center of Gaza marked the deepest push into Palestinian territory since Israeli ground troops entered the strip late last week, starting a new phase in its warto eradicate Islamist militant group Hamas following the surprise Oct. 7 attacks. The Israeli military and Hamas said there were clashes between troops and militants Monday, and Israel said its forces had freed a soldier taken prisoner on Oct. 7 in what appeared to be the first such rescue of a hostage in Gaza.
The question now is whether the Israeli army, which has also invaded from Gaza’s north, moves to quickly surround the city and then enter with overwhelming force to destroy Hamas, or advance more deliberately, lay siege to the militant group and use air power to continue destroying its underground tunnels. Israeli military officials have said the war would take months, suggesting Monday’s moves were probes intended to test defenses and show force, military analysts said.
Israeli officials have a thorny dilemma moving forward, with domestic and international pressure to strike an agreement to free more than 220 hostages held by Hamas and other militants while Washington pushes for a fighting pause for humanitarian aid to come into Gaza. Israel has allowed more food, medicine and other aid into Gaza in recent days, but far short of the humanitarian needs for more than two million people—more than two-thirds of whom have been forced from their homes.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the expanding ground operation in Gaza, saying the military pressure improved chances of Hamas releasing more hostages. “Hamas will not do it unless they are under pressure,” Netanyahu said. “This creates pressure.”
He ruled out calls for a cease-fire with Hamas, saying they were “calls for Israel to surrender to Hamas, to surrender to terrorism, to surrender to barbarism. That will not happen.”