When Israeli ground forces advanced en masse into the Gaza Strip on Friday evening, just after the Jewish Sabbath began, they did it so secretly that it was hours before the outside world understood what had happened.
In the three days since the long-anticipated invasion began, Israel’s military has operated with a similar ambiguity, defying expectations by carrying out a more incremental ground operation than was initially anticipated. While it has continued to decimate Gaza and its people with aerial bombardments, much of the ground force appears to have hung back from Gaza City, Hamas’s stronghold in northern Gaza, and stayed instead in the countryside on the city’s fringes.
Under U.S. pressure to temper their response to the Hamas killing of more than 1,400 people on Israeli soil, Israel has even avoided describing the operation as an invasion. The loss of life, though, in Gaza continues to rise, with the Palestinian death toll so far over 8,000, according to Hamas officials.
“Everything is happening in darkness,” said Andreas Krieg, a war expert at King’s College, London, adding that “there’s a very small group of people who actually know what’s going on, even inside Israel.”
The goal of such strategic ambiguity is threefold, analysts say.
First, it keeps Hamas uncertain about Israel’s next steps. And, at least for now, it allows Israeli soldiers to maintain a siege of Gaza City, where Hamas has dug a network of underground tunnels and fortifications. By doing so, Israel avoids — or at least puts off — bloody urban combat inside the city.
The fog may also buy Israel some time.
Not only may it help put off scrutiny from both internal and external critics, it gives Israel a chance to assess the plans of Hamas allies like Hezbollah, a militia in Lebanon that has exchanged fire with Israel in recent days. Israeli officials fear the militia may be weighing a more forceful attack of its own.
“Modern war is conducted not only with tanks and airplanes,” Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, said in a phone interview. “It’s a cyberwar, a psychological war, and an informational war.”
The shroud of secrecy began late Friday afternoon, when Israel jammed Gaza’s internet and telecoms networks, according to the senior U.S. officials, stopping Gazans from sharing what they were seeing.
Soon after, the air force bombarded Gaza City with a massive barrage of missiles, intended to drive Hamas fighters into their tunnel network.
Then, shortly after 6 p.m., a vast phalanx of tanks, armored vehicles, bulldozers, infantrymen and combat engineers entered northern Gaza — unseen and unreported. Another column entered central Gaza, approaching Gaza City from the south.
With communications down, it would have been hard for Hamas to fully grasp what was happening, or to prepare a response, Dr. Krieg said. Palestinian civilians, too, were plunged into terror and uncertainty, unable to reach one another to learn what was happening.
Within Israel itself, officials had also worked to deflect attention away from the invasion.
On Friday morning, medical teams were told to hold an hourslong rehearsal to prepare for how they might deal with the release of scores of hostages taken by Hamas on Oct. 7, according to a senior medical official. For some, that fostered the impression that Israel was on the verge of a major breakthrough in back-channel negotiations to free the hostages, rather than making last-minute arrangements for an invasion.
Once the operation began, army spokesmen stopped answering their phones. The information blackout was complete.
It was three hours before the military ambiguously announced that it was “expanding ground activity,” and six hours before a military spokesman confirmed that troops were inside Gaza.
On Saturday, the military was still avoiding describing their advance as an invasion, merely noting that the troops remained inside the territory. Only that evening did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formally announce the “second stage” of the war, 24 hours after it started.
And even after that, the military kept a veil over its activity. On Monday it released only limited information, conveying the impression of a controlled, low-intensity advance.
Mr. Netanyahu, speaking to reporters, emphatically rejected appeals for a cease-fire as “calls for Israel to surrender to Hamas, to surrender to terrorism.” Asked about the death toll in Gaza, Mr. Netanyahu said that “not a single civilian has to die,” and he accused Hamas of “preventing them from leaving the areas of conflict.”
The military released unverified footage that appeared to show Israeli tanks moving slowly down beaches in northern Gaza. The clips also showed Israeli bulldozers reshaping the terrain, possibly to ease the tanks’ passage or to destroy tunnel infrastructure. But the footage showed little actual fighting, and reports of clashes were limited to terse and vague statements.
After international condemnation of the toll the attacks have taken on Palestinian civilians, Israel has spoken only of its actions against Hamas fighters.
“Troops killed dozens of terrorists who barricaded themselves in buildings and tunnels,” read one announcement from the Israeli military.
Hamas has also tried to turn vagueness to its advantage. Its military wing has acknowledged clashing with Israeli troops, but also only in general terms. “Mujahedeen surprise enemy forces advancing northwest of Beit Lahia,” said one Hamas statement on Monday afternoon.
By Monday evening, it appeared that the Israeli soldiers were encircling Gaza City, sealing off access to the city from the north and south, but still refraining from sending major forces inside it.
“A sort of pincer movement, cutting it off and making sure nobody leaves,” is how Dr. Krieg described it.
Whether it will work is unclear: The real test will come once the Israeli forces enter Gaza City.
“We’re not in the urban combat stage yet, where it becomes very, very messy,” Dr. Krieg said.
Satellite images showed a group of Israeli tanks near the city of Beit Hanoun, about four miles northeast of Gaza City. Other images also showed more armored Israeli vehicles clustered roughly two miles north of Gaza City. A video posted to social media on Sunday, and verified by The New York Times, showed two soldiers raising an Israeli flag above a beachfront hotel nearby.
To the south, tanks were seen stationed near a major highway that connects Gaza City with the southern parts of the enclave.
Israeli military experts are casting the invasion as phased and gradual.
“It is not a blitzkrieg, it is not the kind of wars that we saw in World War II,” said General Yadlin. “It’s a very slow movement to make sure we kill all the terrorists, we clear all the tunnels, and protect our forces. Moving fast is not a good idea here.”
But for Palestinians, the invasion has already meant still more threats to civilian life.
A video posted on Monday and verified by The Times showed an Israeli tank on the highway south of Gaza firing at what the journalist who filmed it said was a civilian car. The journalist, Youssef Al-Saifi, said he had watched as the civilian car approached it, and tried in vain to warn its driver.
“I shouted at the guy driving the Skoda car at high speed, warning him,” Mr. Al-Saifi said in a video interview. “He did not believe that there was a tank.”
Lauren Leatherby and Christoph Koettl contributed reporting.