A large contingent of Israeli ground forces entered the Gaza Strip Thursday night for the first time since Operation Protective Edge began 10 days ago.
The government made the decision after efforts to reach a cease-fire with Hamas collapsed.
Palestinian sources reported heavy IDF artillery fire throughout the entire Gaza Strip. A Gaza resident told Haaretz, “They’re firing from every direction, everything here is shaking.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the ground operation’s main goal will be to deal with the threat posed by the tunnels Hamas has dug along the Gaza-Israel border. The operation, he added, will continue until it has achieved its goals, restored quiet on the security front and dealt a severe blow to the capabilities of Hamas and other terrorist organizations in Gaza.
“The order to act tonight was authorized by the security cabinet after Israel had accepted the Egyptian cease-fire proposal while Hamas rejected it and continued firing rockets on Israel’s cities,” said a statement from the Prime Minister’s Bureau.
Channel 2 reported that Egyptian officials, who tried to broker a cease-fire in the fighting between Israel and Hamas, blamed Hamas for provoking the ground assault.
The diplomatic-security cabinet has been debating whether to launch a ground operation for almost a week now. After Hamas rejected an Egyptian cease-fire proposal on Tuesday and opted instead to continue the rocket fire on Israel, support for the operation increased. But what finally led to its being approved was Hamas’ attempt early Thursday morning to carry out an attack inside Israel via a cross-border tunnel that emerged near Kibbutz Sufa.
A statement issued by the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said that infantry, armored, engineering and artillery corps troops are participating in the operation, with assistance from the air force and the navy. The IDF plans to ask the cabinet to approve the call-up of additional reservists.
The troops are operating in northern, central and southern Gaza. In addition to dealing with the tunnels and causing damage to armed Palestinian groups, their mission will be to seize commanding ground.
During the last major IDF ground operation in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead in early 2009, Hamas almost entirely avoided direct clashes with Israeli troops. Instead, it made do with setting off bombs and firing mortars.
The ground forces’ entry into Gaza was preceded by heavy bombardments from the artillery corps, the air force and the navy. The IDF instructed residents of Israeli towns near Gaza to remain in shelters.
The army said it expects the rocket fire on Israel to continue, and perhaps even to intensify in response to the ground operation.
Earlier Thursday Israeli and Palestinian units in Gaza resumed and intensified their mutual hostilities at the end of a six-hour ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip. More than 100 rockets and artillery shells were fired at Israel, including large barrages aimed primarily at the south, but some also reached central Israel. The Palestinian news agency Ma’an reported that Israel killed eight Palestinians overnight, including five children, before the six-hour truce came into effect at 10 A.M. Thursday, bringing the death toll in Gaza to 230.
The day was marked by back-and-forth confusion over whether a cease-fire agreement had been reached, until it finally became clear that no such pact was in the offing.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Thursday any cease-fire agreement must include Israeli acceptance of the terms laid down by the Palestinian militant organizations. The “resistance forces” have plenty of patience, he said, and are prepared to continue the fighting until their demands are met.
The group is reported to have five main demands: Opening of all crossings between Israel and the Gaza Strip; opening of the Rafah crossing with Egypt for 24 hours, with an international guarantee it will not be closed; naval access in Gaza; permission for Gaza residents to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem; the release of the prisoners freed in the Gilad Shalit swap and then rearrested; improved conditions for Palestinians imprisoned in Israel.
Jack Khoury, Shirly Seidler and Jonathan Lis contributed to this report.
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