Israel sent soldiers and tanks into Gaza in a ground offensive aimed at stopping the barrage of missiles fired by Hamas and other Palestinian militants after a short-lived cease-fire collapsed earlier in the day.
Accompanied by heavy artillery, the troop movement last night into the Hamas-controlled coastal enclave marked the first significant Israeli ground operation in Gaza since 2009. It followed intensified aerial attacks in which more than 200 Gaza residents were killed. Palestinians launched some 1,250 rockets into Israel, killing one, with many intercepted by Israeli missile defenses.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed the Israel Defense Forces to begin the operation to “destroy the terror tunnels dug from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory,” according to a text message at 10:36 p.m. yesterday in Jerusalem. The goal is “restoring quiet to the citizens of Israel for an extended period, with significant damage to the infrastructure of Hamas and other terriorist organizations.”
We have been eagerly awaiting this ground operation to teach the Israelis a lesson" -- Izadeen al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas armed wing
Israel has clashed with Gaza militants repeatedly since ending a 38-year occupation in 2005. The latest violence flared after the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers last month. Israel arrested hundreds of Hamas members and blamed the group for the crime, which was followed by the suspected revenge killing of a Palestinian youth. Israel, the U.S. and European Union label Hamas a terrorist group.
The Hamas armed wing, known as the Izadeen al-Qassam Brigades, sent out its own text saying: “We have been eagerly awaiting this ground operation to teach the Israelis a lesson.”
Earlier in the day, Israel foiled an attempt by 13 Gaza militants to cross the border into Israeli territory through a tunnel, military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner said in a briefing. Israeli aircraft fired at the group, killing at least one of the fighters, while the others returned to Gaza using the tunnel, he said.
The discovery of the Hamas tunneling operations pushed Netanyahu to act, said Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center, a Washington policy group, and former U.S. mediator in Middle East peace efforts.
“The tunnel structure drove home the point that if you want to deal Hamas a fundamental blow, you have to have boots on the ground,” Miller said, warning that the offensive probably won’t end soon.
“I don’t think they have any intention of getting trapped there, but getting out is another question,” he said. “Are they prepared to be in there for months?”
The Israel ground movements were accompanied by an electricity shutdown across wide parts of the territory, leaving Ahmed Madhoun, 46, his wife and six children sitting in the dark listening to a battery-powered radio. “Outside I keep hearing the bombs and inside, we’re listening to the reports of people getting killed,” the 46-year-old resident of Gaza City’s Sheikh Radwan neighborhood said. “Nobody’s in the street, just ambulances.”
The brief cease-fire was initiated by the UN and came after four boys aged between eight and 11 were killed by Israeli fire on a Gaza beach, according to Gaza Health Ministry official Ashraf al-Qedra. Israel’s military said the deaths appeared to be the “tragic outcome” of a strike targeting Hamas militants.
There can be no military solution to this conflict" -- U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
The truce was broken by a further exchange of rockets and missiles, with three more youngsters subsequently killed by Israeli shelling, al-Qedra said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed to Israel to show restraint and limit civilian casualties. “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,” he said. “There can be no military solution to this conflict.”
Israel, which called up 48,000 reserve troops before the invasion, will mobilize more soldiers and the operation is not time-bound, said military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner
Shares of Israeli companies listed in the U.S. declined to the lowest level in a week after the ground offensive was announced. The Bloomberg Israel-US Equity index fell 1 percent to 116.78 in New York, led by Mellanox Technologies Ltd., which tumbled 3.5 percent.
The Israeli shekel weakened 0.4 percent to 3.4275 per dollar, the sharpest decline since May 20. The Tel Aviv Stock Exchange was closed when troops moved across the border.
Egyptian efforts to broker a cease-fire earlier this week were rejected by Hamas after Netanyahu’s inner security cabinet voted to accept the proposal. The Egyptian plan called for separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian delegations in Cairo and the opening of Gaza border crossings for both people and goods “once the security situation becomes stable.”