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Communications in Gaza black out as Israel proceeds operations on the ground

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Just hours ago, Israel began intensifying its bombing campaign and ground operations in Gaza. This is nearly three weeks after the Hamas attack that Israel says killed 1,400 people. Since then, Gaza officials say Israeli attacks on Gaza have killed more than 7,000 people there. Today's stepped-up attacks, announced by Israel, seemed to begin right as we had reached our producer on the ground in southern Gaza, Anas Baba. Hi, Anas. Are you able to hear us?

ANAS BABA, BYLINE: Yeah. Hi. Sorry. The signal isn't that, like, perfect.

SUMMERS: It's OK.

BABA: It's a bit, like - yeah, it's a little bit bouncy. It's - maybe you're going to hear me and maybe not.

SUMMERS: I think we should go ahead and get into it while your signal sounds good, yeah?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Inaudible).

BABA: Sure.

SUMMERS: All right.

BABA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

BABA: I'll try. I'll try. This is going to be a little bit (inaudible). OK.

SUMMERS: Anas was with us for a few more seconds before his call dropped. And not long after that, Palestinian cellphone and internet companies reported that Israeli strikes caused a complete communication blackout in Gaza. We kept trying to reach Anas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Arabic). Welcome to Ooredoo. The number you are calling is currently unreachable. Please try again later.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIAL TONE RINGING)

SUMMERS: Hours later, he regained internet for just a few minutes and texted, I'm alive. NPR's Daniel Estrin joins us now from Tel Aviv. Hey, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So, Daniel, what can you tell us so far about this new development in the war?

ESTRIN: Israeli army spokesman Daniel Hagari told reporters that the Air Force has increased its bombing campaign in Gaza. It's hitting underground targets, which is where Hamas has tunnels and fighters. And he said that Israel's ground troops are expanding their ground maneuvers. Now, till now, Israel has only done limited ground incursions, but the army says it is attacking Gaza City and its surroundings. There are reports already of Israeli tanks inside Gaza exchanging gunfire with militants. I asked an army spokesman, does this mean the beginning of a ground invasion? And all he said was, the military operation is expanding. But it does certainly resemble the kind of intensive bombardment that would characterize the start of a major ground offensive. And Israel's goal is to eliminate Hamas' military capabilities after Hamas stunned Israel earlier this month with a massacre of Israelis in the south.

SUMMERS: We mentioned, of course, that communications blackout. But, Daniel, what can you tell us about how this is affecting life in Gaza right now?

ESTRIN: Right. Well, I mean, for several hours after you tried to reach our producer Anas Baba, the phone lines, the mobile networks, internet were not working. We had very little idea of what was happening inside Gaza. We got back in touch briefly with Anas Baba, but now the phone lines are all down again. And this is making rescue efforts really difficult inside Gaza. There is not a way now for people to call ambulances and first responders. The United Nations humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinian Territories, Lynn Hastings, tweeted, Gaza has lost contact with the outside world. She said hospitals and humanitarian operations cannot continue without communications. Now, our producer, Anas Baba, is not in Gaza City. He has evacuated. But I have not been able to reach neither him nor our other NPR colleague, Mohammed Draimley, who works as a driver for NPR and helps report for us. He is in Gaza City still, and this is the area that's now being bombarded.

SUMMERS: OK. Daniel, how likely is this to affect the next - how is this likely to affect the next stages of the war?

ESTRIN: It raises serious questions about diplomatic efforts that we had been hearing about to release the 229 Israeli and foreign hostages who were taken back to Gaza in the Hamas attacks this month. So we're going to have to also see if Hamas now intensifies its rocket fire onto Israel. A rocket hit a building in Tel Aviv earlier today and caused some injuries. There is also the prospect that the conflict could spread throughout the Middle East. There were pro-Hamas marches in the occupied West Bank tonight. But if this is truly the prelude to the anticipated ground invasion that we've all been hearing about, it could mean many months of fierce urban combat inside Gaza. That could lead to heavy casualties, both of Israeli soldiers and especially of Palestinian fighters and civilians. And this is a war, of course, that has already seen absolutely catastrophic death tolls both in Israel and in Gaza.

SUMMERS: NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv. Daniel, thank you, as always, for your reporting.

ESTRIN: You're welcome, Juana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.