In a televised address, Yoav Gallant, said that forces were “tightening the chokehold” around the city, having surrounded it in recent days.
Mr Gallant’s comments echoed those of Major General Yaron Finkelman, the commanding officer of the Southern Command of Israel’s army in a briefing near the border with Gaza. Israel has been ratcheting up ground operations in recent days alongside an aerial bombardment that started in the wake of a Hamas attack inside Israel on 7 October, during which 1,400 people were killed and another 240 taken hostage. Military spokesmen have said that troops are seeking to destroy a network of tunnels that Hamas use in Gaza.
“For the first time in decades, [troops are] fighting in the heart of Gaza City. At the heart of terrorism,” Maj Gen Finkelman said. “Every day and every hour the forces are killing militants, exposing tunnels and destroying weapons and continuing onward to enemy centres.”
Mr Gallant said that “forces came from the north and the south” around the city, in coordination with air and sea forces. “They are manoeuvring on foot, armoured vehicles and tanks, along with military engineers from all directions,” he added.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israeli forces are “deepening the pressure” on Hamas. The military wing of Hamas claimed it was inflicting heavy losses and damage on advancing Israeli forces.
The aerial bombardment of Gaza by Israel, which has lasted a month, also continues. According to the health ministry in the Hamas-run Strip, more than 10,000 people have been killed, around 40 per cent of them children.
“It has been one full month of carnage, of incessant suffering, bloodshed, destruction, outrage and despair,” UN human rights commissioner Volker Turk said in a statement at the start of a trip to the region, during which he will visit the Rafah crossing from Egypt, the sole route for aid.
There have been growing calls for a “humanitarian pause” in the strikes to allow more aid in, with the UN and other aid agencies saying that nowhere near enough is being allowed into Gaza, which is also under a blockade by Israel, and food, fuel, water and medical supplies are running out.
Israel gave residents a window from 10am-2pm to leave Gaza City on Monday. Residents say Israeli tanks have been moving mostly at night, with Israeli forces largely relying on air and artillery strikes to clear a path for their ground advance.
“For your safety, take this next opportunity to move south beyond Wadi Gaza,” the military announced, referring to the wetlands that bisect the narrow, coastal territory. There are thought to be hundreds of thousands still inside northern Gaza.
“The most dangerous trip in my life. We saw the tanks from point blank (range). We saw decomposed body parts. We saw death,” resident Adam Fayez Zeyara told Reuters on the road out of Gaza City.
While Israel’s military operation is focused on the northern half of Gaza, the south has also come under attack. Palestinian health officials said at least 23 people were killed in two separate Israeli air strikes early on Tuesday in the southern Gaza cities of Khan Younis and Rafah.
“We are civilians,” said Ahmed Ayesh, who was rescued from the rubble of a house in Khan Younis where health officials said 11 people had been killed. “This is the bravery of the so-called Israel – they show their might and power against civilians, babies inside, kids inside, and elderly,” he told Reuters.
Both Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gallant repeated on Monday that there would be no temporary or general ceasefire until the hostages being held by Hamas in Gaza were released. However, Mr Netanyahu told American network ABC in an interview late on Monday that he would consider “tactical pauses” to allow some aid in and for people to head south.
“As far as tactical little pauses, an hour here, an hour there. We’ve had them before, I suppose, will check the circumstances in order to enable goods, humanitarian goods to come in, or our hostages, individual hostages to leave,” he said. “But I don’t think there’s going to be a general ceasefire.”
Israel has so far been vague about its long-term plans for Gaza, once its operations inside Gaza end. In some of the first direct comments on the subject, Mr Netanyahu told ABC that Israel would seek to have security responsibility for Gaza “for an indefinite period”.
“We’ve seen what happens when we don’t have that security responsibility,” he said. But White House spokesman John Kirby said US president Joe Biden opposed Israeli reoccupation. “It’s not good for Israel, it’s not good for the Israeli people,” Mr Kirby told CNN.
Mr Gallant also seemed to try and temper those remarks on Monday evening. Asked about plans for who would rule Gaza once the war was over, he said: “I can tell you who will not govern [Gaza]. It will not be Hamas, and it will not be Israel. Everything else is a possibility.”
Reuters contributed to this report