Israeli airstrikes and heavy shelling have hit locations across Gaza over the past hour, following a statement Friday from the Israeli prime minister that he has ordered the military to prepare for an expansion of its ground operation.
Ambulances in east Rafah are under “aggressive” artillery shelling and a massive explosion erupted in Gaza City around 3pm (1300 GMT), according to Middle East Eye contributor Mohammed Omer reporting from Gaza.
The attacks come shortly after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he planned to expand the land invasion of Gaza launched late Thursday.
Air strikes alone, Netanyahu said at a convention of ministers in Tel Aviv, would not deal a significant blow to the network of tunnels used by Hamas militants to stage cross-border attacks on southern Israel.
Israel “chose to embark on a ground incursion after having exhausted all other possibilities,” Netanyahu said. “We have no guarantee of one hundred percent success, but we are doing all we can to achieve the most.”
Early Friday, Israel’s ground troops had been limited to the northern and southern areas of the enclave as fierce clashes were reported between Hamas fighters and Israeli soldiers in northern Gaza early Friday, according to an MEE contributor and media reports.
The Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, said three Israeli army units retreated from southern and northern Gaza following early morning confrontrations.
The Qassam Brigades also said it had fired two M75 rockets at the southern Israeli city of Dimona, which houses Israel’s nuclear reactor, on Friday.
The death toll among Palestinians soared to 260 as the large-scale Israeli offensive entered its eleventh day, with the army bombarding Gaza by air and sea as well as from tanks massed along the border.
Israel reported its first combat death after Hamas fighters shot a soldier in Khan Yunis, while a three-month-old baby was among 24 Palestinians reportedly killed since the ground invasion began.
Israel said it was pressing ahead with the operation to destroy a network of tunnels that riddle the Gaza strip, used for assembling rockets and staging cross border attacks.
Before the ground offensive was launched, the army said it had foiled a subterranean raid by Hamas fighters into southern Israel.
Israel says it blew up a tunnel and prevented Hamas fighters from carrying out a mission inside the country. Hamas has denied this account, insisting that Israel attacked the fighters when they were returning from their mission.
As the incursion began late Thursday, rockets lit up the sky, and the force of the shelling shook a seafront hotel in Gaza City that was housing scores of journalists.
The assault followed a brief humanitarian truce and urgent diplomatic appeals that Israel redouble its efforts to avoid harm to civilians.
US Secretary of State John Kerry urged Israel to limit collateral damage in Gaza and be “precise” in its ground assault on the enclave.
Kerry emphasised in a telephone call to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu “the need to avoid further escalation and to restore the 2012 ceasefire as soon as possible,” said the State Department.
Offensive ‘Bound to Fail’
Hamas said the ground operation was destined to fail.
“What the occupier Israel failed to achieve through its air and sea raids, it will not be able to achieve with a ground offensive. It is bound to fail,” Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal said from his exile in Doha.
A Hamas spokesman in Gaza earlier said “Israel will pay a high price” for launching the ground operation and that his Islamist movement “is ready for the confrontation”.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Israel must stop its ground operation, warning it would lead to “more bloodshed” and complicate efforts to end the conflict in the enclave.
Israel approved the call-up of another 18,000 reservists, taking the total number approved to 65,000 for an operation aimed at protecting Israeli lives and striking “a significant blow to Hamas’s terror infrastructure,” the army said.
Shortly beforehand, the military began an intensive bombardment of Gaza by air and sea as well as by tanks massed along the border.
Israel launched Operation Protective Edge on 8 July to stamp out rocket fire from Gaza, pounding the coastal enclave from both the air and the sea.
Egypt lashed out at Hamas on Thursday, saying it could have saved dozens of lives had it accepted an truce brokered by Cairo but also condemned the “Israeli escalation”.
“Had Hamas accepted the Egyptian proposal, it could have saved the lives of at least 40 Palestinians,” said Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri.
An initial ceasefire proposal which was to begin on Tuesday was accepted by Israel and Abbas, but Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Commitees said they were excluded from the discussions about the proposal would not stop fighting until terms for a ceasefire had been agreed.
Netanyahu and his defence minister, Moshe Yaalon, instructed the army “to commence ground action to strike at the terrorist tunnels from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory,” the premier’s office said.
Army spokesman Major Arye Shalicar told AFP Israel’s goal was “to strike Hamas infrastructure and operatives” in Gaza, including tunnels.
Residents Urged to Flee
Experts have said a ground operation is the only way of reaching targets unattainable from the air, such as the underground network.
Almoz urged Gaza residents to flee areas where the army was operating, warning the ground campaign would “be extended as much as necessary”.
Following appeals by Washington and the United Nations, the military pledged to invest “unprecedented efforts” to limit harm to civilians.
“I regret that despite my repeated urgings, and those of many regional and world leaders together, an already dangerous conflict has now escalated even further,” UN chief Ban Ki-moon said, urging Israel to “do far more” to spare Palestinian non-combatants.
On the ground, Palestinian witnesses reported gun battles breaking out east of the southern city of Khan Yunis, with military sources confirming it was one of the areas in which the troops were operating.
A military spokeswoman told AFP ground and air forces had attacked at least 36 targets in Gaza since the incursion was launched.
Following the start of the ground operation, 25 rockets fired by Gaza fighters hit Israel without causing any casualties, with another 20 intercepted, the army said Friday.
Military figures also show that 1,155 rockets fired from Gaza have hit Israel from 8 July to Friday, and another 312 shot down by the Iron Dome air defence system.
(Middle East Eye – www.middleeasteye.net)