Israel’s military says infantry backed by tanks have carried out “localised raids” in the Gaza Strip.
It comes ahead of an expected ground operation, with Israel warning more than a million people in the north of Gaza to evacuate to the south.
The small raids were carried out to attack Hamas rocket crews and seek information on the location of hostages taken by Palestinian gunmen last Saturday, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said.
It is the first time the Israeli military has stated ground troops have been operating inside the besieged strip, entering the territory to battle Hamas fighters and destroy weapons as well as search for evidence about the captives.
On Telegram, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said it was conducting “a wide-scale strike on terror targets belonging to the Hamas terrorist organisation in the Gaza Strip”.
For nearly a week, Israel’s military has been launching retaliatory airstrikes on Gaza targeting Hamas since the ruling Palestinian militant group stormed the border at the weekend, killing hundreds of Israelis in their homes – as well as 260 others at a music festival.
On Friday evening, Hamas said 70 people, mostly women and children, were killed in an Israeli airstrike on convoys fleeing Gaza City.
Earlier, the Gaza health ministry said at least 500 children and 276 women were among the estimated 1,799 Palestinians who have died in strikes with more than 6,300 wounded.
Israel said a total of 1,300 of its people have lost their lives since Saturday’s surprise raid as its troops continue to mass along the barbed wire fence ahead of a possible ground offensive on Gaza, with 300,000 reservists called up.
Around 150 hostages are thought to be held in the narrow coastal enclave by Hamas which has been attacking Israel with rockets.
IDF Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner told Sky News the localised operations were conducted to find “potential abductees”, identify bodies and “seek out terrorists”.
Asked if this was the beginning of a bigger ground operation, he said it was “the continuation of what we’ve been doing for the last seven days”.
“We’re escalating. That is part of our efforts to restore calm and security to the people of Israel and defeat Hamas,” he added.
He also said there was “still a threat” in southern Israel and that Hamas “terrorists” could still be in the territory.
The United Nations has said it is “impossible” for Palestinians to move to the south of Gaza in the next 24 hours, after citizens were ordered to evacuate by Israel’s military.
The UN’s Palestinian refugee agency has warned Gaza was becoming a “hell hole” and was on the “brink of collapse”.
Israel has been dropping leaflets written in Arabic into the Gaza Strip urging people in the north of the area to move south across the Wadi Gaza – a piece of coastal wetland with a river running through the middle.
The UN said the entire population of Gaza north of Wadi Gaza were urged by the Israeli military to relocate, which “amounts to 1.1 million people”, or nearly half of Gaza’s 2.3 million population.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the UN “considers it impossible for such a movement to take place without devastating humanitarian consequences”.
The IDF said “this evacuation is for your own safety”, but in response, Hamas has called the warning “fake propaganda” and urged Palestinians “not to fall for it”.
The UN has appealed for the order to be rescinded to avoid turning “what is already a tragedy into a calamitous situation”.
The World Health Organisation has also called for the order to be immediately reversed, to protect health and reduce suffering.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Amman on Friday that he “rejects the forced displacement” of Palestinians in Gaza, the official Palestinian news agency WAFA reported.