Israeli gunboats lit up the sky with their fire before dawn while
helicopters fired into the coastal enclave. Hamas fired mortar
rounds at the invading troops and rockets across the border at the
southern Israeli towns of Ashdod and Ashkelon.
Palestinian health officials said 27 Palestinians, including a baby,
two children and a 70-year-old woman, had been killed since Israel
poured ground forces into the densely-populated strip of 1.8 million
Palestinians on Thursday.
The action followed 10 days of barrages against Gaza from air and
sea and hundreds of rockets fired by Hamas into Israel.
"We chose to start this operation after we exhausted other options
and reached the conclusion that without it we could pay a much
higher price," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told
reporters before a special cabinet session at Tel Aviv military
headquarters. "The main goal is to restore quiet."
"My instructions...to the Israeli army, with the approval of the
security cabinet, is to prepare for the possibility of a widening, a
significant widening of the ground operation."
He did not say what form a widened operation might take. Israel says
its forces have focused so far on seeking out tunnels Palestinian
militants might use for cross-border raids.
One such infiltration was narrowly thwarted on Thursday, with the
army saying it had repelled 13 Hamas gunmen after they emerged from
a tunnel close to an Israeli farming community.
To back up regular forces, Israel said it was calling up 18,000
military reservists, adding to 30,000 already mobilised
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri responded with defiance to the
Israeli escalation, saying: "Netanyahu is killing our children and
will pay the price. The ground invasion doesn't frighten us and the
occupation army will sink in Gaza's mud."
Hamas wants Israel and Egypt, whose military-backed government is at
odds with the Palestinian Islamists, to lift border restrictions
that have deepened Gaza's economic hardship and unemployment.
Israel said one of its soldiers was killed and several others
wounded in Gaza clashes overnight. Hamas said its men were shelling
the tanks with mortars and setting off bombs against troops crossing
the sandy frontier under smokescreens.
In all, 258 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed
since the fighting began on July 8, Gaza officials said.
Dozens of Palestinian families, forewarned by evacuation notices
Israel had disseminated with leaflet drops and automated phone
messages, fled toward the interior, leaving empty streets.
Infra-red video released by the military showed six tanks rolling
into Gaza by night, followed by two long infantry columns, after a
soldier opened a gate in the border fence.
"We are using a very high level of firepower and artillery,"
military spokesman Brigadier General Motti Almoz said. "A great
number of soldiers are in action in the Gaza Strip, soldiers are
overtaking their targets, tunnels, Hamas targets," Almoz said, and
several "points of friction" with gunmen.
Among Friday's fatalities were three teenage brothers, who medics
said were shelled by an Israeli tank inside their house, at a
residential building in Beit Lahiya, a northern town.
Though they are die-hard foes, Israel says it does not intend to
topple Hamas, the dominant Islamist force in Gaza.
Live television showed rockets shot down by Israel's Iron Dome
interceptor. No casualties were reported from the salvoes.
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Israeli media said the army appeared to be probing northern and
southern frontier zones for cross-border tunnels, Palestinian
command bunkers and buried rocket silos.
The soldier was Israel's second fatality in eleven days of fighting.
A rocket attack killed a civilian two days ago.
Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner, another military spokesman, said
Israel had killed 14 Palestinian gunmen in "exchanges of fire
throughout Gaza" and destroyed 20 rocket launchers.
Hamas said its fighters had repelled Israeli forces in the northern
Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, wounding seven soldiers.
Among sites targeted by Israeli forces in Gaza on Friday was the
Al-Jawhara building housing various media outlets, medics and
witnesses said. One journalist was wounded.
Israel calls the Gaza offensive a response to mounting rocket
salvoes, more than 100 a day, fired by the Palestinians into its
cities, sending hundreds of thousands of Israelis dashing to
shelters as far north as the Tel Aviv business hub.
Hostilities were stoked 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 briefly held
fire on Tuesday after Egypt, which also borders Gaza, announced a
truce plan; but Hamas and other militants balked saying their
conditions had not been addressed.
The fighting has been the worst between Israel and Palestinians in
two years. The United Nations Security Council will meet on Friday
to discuss the developments.
The U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, speaking after the
announcement of the ground assault, implored Israel to do more to
stop Palestinian civilian deaths.
Fighting resumed immediately after the end of a five-hour
humanitarian truce on Thursday requested by the United Nations to
allow Palestinians to stock up on food.
"Israel had agreed to the Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire and to
the United Nations' proposal for a humanitarian truce. In both cases
Hamas continuing firing," Netanyahu said.
Hamas leaders have talked up their "tunnel campaign" against Israel.
One publicity video showed Palestinian fighters hauling rockets
through a narrow passage to load onto a launcher that appears buried
in an orchard. It is then fired remotely after its mechanised cover
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.
(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Additional reporting by Noah Browning in
GAZA and Michelle Nichols in NEW YORK; Editing by Howard Goller and
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