Israeli troops pushed into Gaza Friday in a ground offensive that officials said could last up to two weeks, as the prime minister ordered the military to prepare for a “significantly” wider campaign.
© — Photo by The Associated Press
Smoke rises behind a mosque’s minarets after an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City, northern Gaza Strip, Friday.
The assault raised risks of a bloodier conflict amid rising Palestinian civilian casualties and the first Israeli military death — and brought questions of how far Israel will go to cripple Gaza’s Hamas rulers.
Officially, the goal remains to destroy a network of tunnels militants use to infiltrate Israel and attack civilians.
In its first day on the ground in Gaza, the military said it took up positions beyond the border, encountered little resistance from Hamas fighters and made steady progress in destroying the tunnels.
Military officials said the quick work means that within a day or two, Israeli leaders may already have to decide whether to expand the operation.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had ordered the military to prepare for a “significant expansion” of the ground offensive.
“It is not possible to deal with tunnels only from the air. It needs to be done also from the ground,” he told a special cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv. “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.”
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Frustrated by Hamas’ refusal to accept an Egyptian-brokered truce agreement and the failure of a 10-day campaign of more than 2,000 airstrikes to halt relentless rocket fire on Israeli cities, Israel launched a ground offensive it had previously been reticent to undertake to further weaken Hamas militarily.
With calls from Israeli hard-liners to completely crush Hamas, it remains unclear how far Israel will go in an operation that has already seen 274 Palestinians killed in Gaza, 20 per cent of them children.
“It won’t end that quickly,” said Yitzhak Aharonovitch, Israel’s minister of public security. “Anything can happen. If we need to keep going, we will keep going. We won’t stop. We need quiet for the citizens of the south and the citizens of Israel.”
The Israeli military said it had killed nearly 20 militants in exchanges of fire.
Israel says it is going to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties and blames them on Hamas, accusing it of firing from within residential neighbourhoods and using its civilians as “human shields.”