ISRAELI troops have pushed deeper into Gaza to destroy rocket-launching sites and tunnels.
Soldiers are firing tank shells and clashing with Palestinian fighters in a high-stakes ground offensive meant to weaken the enclave’s Hamas rulers.
Yesterday’s assault opens a new, potentially extended and bloodier stage in the conflict following a ten-day Israeli campaign of more than 2,000 air strikes against Gaza that had failed to halt Hamas rocket fire on Israeli cities.
The government said its goal was to stop rocket attacks, destroy the network of Hamas tunnels into Israel and weaken the militant Islamist organisation. But there are calls from hard-liners in Israel to completely destroy Hamas and drive it from power in Gaza. That could mean a longer operation with the danger of mounting casualties in a conflict that has already seen at least 265 Palestinians killed in Gaza – about a quarter of them children.
Israel had been reticent about launching a ground offensive for fear of endangering its soldiers and drawing international condemnation over mounting Palestinian civilian deaths.
But after an attempt by Hamas to infiltrate Israel on Thursday – when 13 armed militants sneaked through a tunnel from Gaza, only to be killed by an air strike as they emerged in Israel – prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave the order for thousands of troops to enter Gaza.
“We chose to begin this operation after the other options were exhausted and with the understanding that without the operation the price we will pay can be very high,” he said yesterday before a cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv.
Israel suffered its first military death of the conflict in the early hours of the ground assault. The circumstances behind the death of Staff Sergeant Eitan Barak, 20, were not clear. Hamas’s military wing said it ambushed Israeli units in the northern town of Beit Lahiya, but Israeli media said Barak was probably killed by friendly fire.
An Israeli civilian died from mortar fire earlier in the week, and several have been wounded. The Israeli military said it killed nearly 20 militants in exchanges of fire. Gaza health officials said 25 Palestinians have been killed since the ground operation began, including three teenage siblings from the Abu Musallam family who were killed when a tank shell hit their home.
At the morgue, one of the victims’ faces was blackened by soot and he and his siblings were each wrapped in a white burial shroud.
Their father Ismail said the three were sleeping when the shell struck, and he had to dig them out from under the rubble.
Israel says it is going to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties and blames them on Hamas, accusing it of firing from residential neighbourhoods and using civilians as “human shields”.
The streets of Gaza City were largely deserted, although some roadside vegetable vendors remained open. The sound of steady shelling could be heard across Gaza as Israel continued to strike targets from the air, and buildings shook as missiles hit.
A Hamas spokesman said: “The ground offensive does not scare us and we pledge to drown the occupation army in Gaza mud.”
Hamas has survived Israeli offensives in the past, including a major three-week ground operation in January 2009 from which it emerged militarily weaker, but in each case it recovered. The group controls an arsenal of thousands of rockets and it has built a system of underground bunkers. However, it is weaker than it was during the previous two offensives.