Israel says ground offensive underway in Gaza
Israel announced the start of a Gaza ground campaign on Friday (Jul 18 ) after 10 days of aerial and naval bombardments failed to stop persistent Palestinian rocket attacks, but it signalled the invasion would be limited in scope.
A statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said he had given orders to destroy tunnels that militants had dug to infiltrate Israel and carry out attacks.
An Israeli military spokesman said Israel was not out to try to topple the dominant Hamas Islamist group.
Such a goal would likely entail a move into densely populated Gaza City, where urban warfare could prove costly to both sides.
No time frame was announced for the new operation, and the length and intensity of Israel’s assaults could depend on the scale of civilian deaths – casualties likely to boost international pressure for a ceasefire.
Explosions echoed and flashes of orange lit the sky in the eastern Gaza Strip as Israeli gunboats fired shells and tracer bullets. Israeli artillery pounded the area and helicopters fired across the border, Reuters witnesses said.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri responded with defiance to Israel’s invasion announcement. “We warn Netanyahu of the dreadful consequences of such a foolish act,” Abu Zuhri told Reuters.
Gaza health officials said 235 Palestinians, mostly civilians, had been killed since Israel began the air and sea offensive on July 8 in what it called a response to mounting rocket salvoes into its cities.
A statement from the Israeli military said the operation will include “infantry, armoured corps, engineer corps, artillery and intelligence combined with aerial and naval support”.
It said another 18,000 reserve soldiers would be mobilised to join more than 30,000 already called up.
The ground operation began after Egyptian ceasefire mediation efforts hit a wall and warnings by Israel over the past few days to thousands of residents in Gaza’s north and east to flee their homes for their own safety.
Israel briefly held its fire on Tuesday after Egypt, which is also Gaza’s neighbour, announced a truce plan, but Hamas and other militant groups rejected the proposal, saying it had not addressed their demands.
Hamas wants Israel and Egypt, whose military-backed government is at odds with the Islamist movement, to lift border restrictions that have deepened economic hardship among Gaza’s 1.8 million populace.
Hamas is also suffering from a cash crunch, unable to pay its employees in Gaza for months.
This latest conflict was largely triggered by the killing of three Israeli teens in the occupied West Bank last month and the death on July 2 of a Palestinian youth in a suspected revenge murder.
Israel indicted on Thursday three Israelis suspected of having killed the 16-year-old Palestinian in Jerusalem. A lawyer for a legal aid group representing the adult and two minors said they would enter a plea at a later date.
Israel last mounted a large-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip during a three-week war in late 2008 and early 2009 that claimed 1,400 Palestinian and 13 Israeli lives.