Troops clashed with members of the terrorist group in a series of “violent battles” as the ground invasion significantly expanded across the sealed-off enclave.

Pictures showed infantry and armoured vehicles streaming across the border before bombarding the jihadists’ network of underground tunnels.

Large swathes of the territory were under blankets of thick smoke with rubble smouldering after heavy Israeli jet and artillery bombardment.

Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) spokesman Lt Col Richard Hecht said: “We are striking in all parts of the Gaza Strip.”

The IDF claimed it had taken out dozens of militants as it swept through the streets, with Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the IDF, saying that its forces were “destroying Hamas step by step, and strike by strike”.

But at least two Israeli soldiers were killed in action in Gaza – the first military fatalities for the IDF inside the Gaza Strip since the war erupted.

The painstaking urban warfare operation marks the largest military advance since the war erupted on October 7.

The offensive came as it was claimed more than 50 Palestinians were killed in strikes on a refugee camp in Jabalia in northern Gaza – the largest of eight in the Strip. The director of Gaza’s Indonesian hospital said 150 were also wounded after Israeli air strikes.

Images showed rescue workers pulling bodies from the rubble and searching for casualties amid the smoking wreckage of smouldering buildings.

And in the Israeli city of Ashdod, a residential building was struck after a missile attack from across the border.

Inside Gaza, Israel claims to have successfully targeted gunmen hidden inside a vast underground system, known as the Gaza Metro, as soldiers moved house to house in the hunt for Hamas’s top brass.

The rabbit warren network of underground compounds – used by 800,000 Palestinians to flee south – is a key objective as Israel ramps up its ground offensive after the massacre that killed 1,500.

Soldiers are also deploying “sponge bombs” to seal and block off the labyrinthine tunnel system used by Hamas, trapping those inside.

The incendiary devices use chemical compounds based around a liquid emulsion and are thrown into a tunnel where it explodes, expands and hardens. It leaves terrorists with no escape and allows Israeli commandos to secure safe routes in the search for hostages.

Israel has targeted the myriad of tunnels under Gaza because they are passageways used to store rockets and ammunition caches and house command and control centres from where missile attacks are launched.

Hamas claims to have built 311 miles of tunnels under Gaza. They have been likened to the intricate al Qaeda passageways in the mountains of Afghanistan or the Viet Cong in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

Urban warfare expert Daphne Richemond-Barak said: “It’s always difficult to deal with tunnels in any context, even when they are in a mountainous area, but when they are urban area, then everything is more complicated – the tactical aspects, strategic aspects, the operational aspects, and of course, the protection that you want to ensure for the civilian population.”

The IDF said it had destroyed 300 targets in 48 hours, striking compounds and wiping out militant chiefs, saying: “We are hunting their commanders, we are attacking their infrastructure, and whenever there is an important target related to Hamas, we strike it.”

Hamas said Israeli trucks, tanks and bulldozers have been targeted with machine-gun and anti-tank fire. Neither side has released military casualty figures.

Former British intelligence officer Philip Ingram said: “It is not classic armour territory but the best army in the world for doing this is the Israelis.

“It’s just extremely complex. It’s not somewhere tanks can classically manoeuvre the way they do… so any advances are very slow, and it uses up huge amounts of infantry.”

More than half the enclave’s 2.3 million population have fled their homes, with 672,000 seeking sanctuary in UN schools or in hospitals.

READ MORE Hamas says hundreds of foreign hostages will be released ‘in the next few days’

It comes amid mounting pressure to allow large amounts of humanitarian aid into Gaza through the Rafah Crossing with Egypt.

The number of Palestinians killed in Israeli strikes now stands at 8,525 – including 3,542 children – the Hamas-run health ministry claimed.

It also said 15 hospitals are out of service, along with 32 healthcare centres. The World Health Organisation said a “public health catastrophe is imminent” as its population struggles with a raging war, no food, water, medicine, overcrowding, mass displacement and bombed infrastructure.

As the Daily Express reported on Monday, children are at most risk because of dehydration with just 5% of normal water supplies available.

More than 420 infants are being killed or injured in Gaza each day, the head of the UN children’s agency has warned. Catherine Russell, UNICEF Executive Director, said the figure “should shake each of us to our core”.

According to figures from the Hamas-run health ministry, more than 8,300 people have been killed in Gaza, a figure including at least 3,400 children.

Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, said: “This surpasses the number of children killed annually across the world’s conflict zones since 2019.”

The agency said 64 of its staff have been killed since the start of the war, including a man killed alongside his wife and eight children in a strike on Monday. It represents the highest number of UN aid workers killed in any conflict around the world in such a short time.

The war has also threatened to ignite even heavier fighting on other fronts. Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant wing have traded fire on a daily basis along the border, and Israel and the US have struck targets in Syria linked to Iran, which supports Hamas, Hezbollah and other armed groups in the region.

United Nations special envoy Geir Pedersen said: “Spillover into Syria is not just a risk – it has already begun. Fuel is being added to a tinderbox that was already beginning to ignite.”

The spread of further violence and disorder has been fuelled by growing instability and no meaningful progress towards a political solution, he said. It means the Syrian people now face “a terrifying prospect of a potential wider escalation”.

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