The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Israel invades Gaza Strip, escalating military operation against Hamas

  • Print
Smoke from flares rises in the sky in Gaza City, in the northern Gaza Strip, Thursday, July 17, 2014. Israel launched a large-scale ground offensive in the Gaza Strip Thursday, escalating a 10-day military operation to try to destroy Hamas' weapons arsenal, rocket firing abilities and tunnels under the Palestinian territory's border with Israel. It was the first major Israeli ground offensive in Gaza in just over five years. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Enlarge Image

Smoke from flares rises in the sky in Gaza City, in the northern Gaza Strip, Thursday, July 17, 2014. Israel launched a large-scale ground offensive in the Gaza Strip Thursday, escalating a 10-day military operation to try to destroy Hamas' weapons arsenal, rocket firing abilities and tunnels under the Palestinian territory's border with Israel. It was the first major Israeli ground offensive in Gaza in just over five years. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

GAZA, Palestine - The heavy thud of tank shells, often just seconds apart, echoed across the Gaza Strip early Friday as thousands of Israeli soldiers launched a ground invasion, escalating a 10-day campaign of heavy air bombardments to try to destroy Hamas' rocket-firing abilities and the tunnels militants use to infiltrate Israel.

Flares lit up the night sky before dawn and the wail of ambulance sirens mixed with the Muslim call to prayer from mosque loudspeakers as thick smoke rose into the air from sites where shells and missiles struck.

"There is a tank shell every minute," said an official in the Gaza security operations room, who said all of the seaside strip's border areas were being shelled and that Hamas fighters were exchanging fire with Israeli troops near a northern Gaza town.

"There is also fire from the sea toward police checkpoints."

Israel launched the offensive late Thursday after becoming increasingly exasperated with unrelenting rocket fire from Gaza on its cities, especially following Hamas' rejection of an Egyptian cease-fire plan earlier in the week. Palestinian militants have fired more than 1,500 rockets at Israeli cities since fighting began.

However, a ground offensive could quickly lead to military and political entanglements for Israel, especially if more Palestinian civilians are killed.

More than 240 Palestinians have already died in the air campaign, including 14 children under age 12 killed over the past two days, according to Palestinian health officials. One Israeli has also died.

Israel accuses Hamas of firing from within populated neighbourhoods and using civilians as "human shields."

Hamas struck a defiant tone. A spokesman, Fawzi Barhoum, said Israel "will pay dearly" for the assault. "Hamas is ready for a confrontation," he said.

The Israeli operation began around 10 p.m. Thursday, with what the military said was an open-ended assault to be carried out on several fronts.

"Large ground forces accompanied by massive air force support, naval forces and intelligence, are taking over targets in Gaza, operating against tunnels and terror activists and infrastructure," said chief military spokesman Brig. Gen. Motti Almoz.

He called on Gaza residents to evacuate targeted areas, warning the "military is operating there with very great force."

Gaza health officials said eight Palestinians were killed in the early stage of the ground operation, including a 3-month-old boy who died after a shell hit his family's Bedouin tent in southern Gaza. The body was evacuated on a donkey cart because ambulances couldn't reach the area due to heavy shelling, the officials said.

A resident of the northern town of Beit Lahiya, Jamal Abu Samra, said he was taking cover from the shelling by huddling on the ground floor of his home with his wife, six children and two dozen other relatives.

"We don't have power since the afternoon so we are listening to the (battery-operated) radio to hear the news," he said.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said the operation was focused on the tunnels dug by Hamas under the Gaza-Israel border. Earlier Thursday, 13 heavily armed Hamas militants had tried to sneak into Israel through such a tunnel, but were stopped by an airstrike at the mouth of the tunnel.

"For Israel to send ground forces into Gaza is not a light decision. Ultimately we understand the risks involved both for our own soldiers and the dangers of escalation," he said. "But we felt this was necessary ... to deal with this strategic threat posed by those tunnels, which can allow terrorists to infiltrate into Israel and cause mass death."

Regev said "Hamas closed the door to a diplomatic solution."

"The people of Gaza are not our enemy. Our enemy is only those shooting rockets into Israel, trying to kill our people. In many ways the people of Gaza are also a victim of this terrible Hamas regime," he said.

Israeli officials have said the goal is to weaken Hamas militarily and have not addressed the possibility of driving the Islamic militants from power. However, Hamas has survived Israeli offensives in the past, including a major ground operation in January 2009 from which it emerged militarily weaker, but then recovered. Hamas has since assembled thousands of rockets and built a system of underground bunkers.

While the ultimate scale of Israel's ambition remained unclear, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had come under growing domestic pressure to ratchet up Israel's response to rocket fire that 10 days of airstrikes had failed to stem.

Israel has little stomach for the scale of casualties that a takeover of Gaza would likely entail, but Israeli public opinion appears to be nearly at a breaking point over the rockets.

Netanyahu may also have sensed he has a degree of international backing for action after Israel accepted an Egyptian cease-fire proposal Tuesday that was essentially a return to the status quo ante — and Hamas then rejected it. Similarly, Hamas ended a "humanitarian lull" of several hours Thursday by immediately resuming rocket fire.

However, the ground offensive brought swift criticism from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who said he regretted that despite his repeated urgings and "those of many regional and world leaders together, an already dangerous conflict has now escalated even further."

Both Ban and the Obama administration took Israel to task for the mounting civilian death toll in Gaza.

"I urge Israel to do far more to stop civilian casualties," said Ban. "There can be no military solution to this conflict."

Jordan, the Arab representative on the U.N. Security Council, called for an emergency meeting of the council but no time was set. The body is already scheduled to hold an emergency meeting Friday morning on the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner in Ukraine.

Noting the deaths a day earlier of four boys who were killed on a Gaza beach by an Israeli strike, the State Department said the high civilian death toll in Gaza has been "heartbreaking."

Still, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki also criticized Hamas militants who continue to fire rockets and mortars into Israel, prolonging the latest round of violence.

Thousands of Israeli soldiers had massed on the border with Gaza in recent days, waiting for the order to go in.

Israel initially called up 48,000 reserve soldiers and later Thursday, the Cabinet authorized 18,000 more, the military said.

The ground operation followed a brief truce in which Israel held fire to allow Gazans to stock up on food and other necessities after being largely holed up at home since the conflict began last month.

Since July 8, Israeli strikes have hit more than 2,000 targets in Gaza and Hamas launched nearly 1,500 rockets at Israel, the Israeli military has said.

Israel last carried out a major ground offensive in Gaza in January 2009.

During that three-week campaign, some 1,400 Palestinians were killed, including hundreds of civilians. Thirteen Israelis also died.

___

Deitch reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City and Yousur Alhlou in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Architect Antoine Predock speechless after CMHR opening

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A female Mallard duck leads a group of duckings on a morning swim through the reflections in the Assiniboine River at The Forks Monday.     (WAYNE GLOWACKI/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS) Winnipeg Free Press  June 18 2012
  • Jia Ping Lu practices tai chi in Assiniboine Park at the duck pond Thursday morning under the eye of a Canada goose  - See Bryksa 30 Day goose challenge Day 13- May 17, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Do you think the Scottish independence referendum will have an effect in Canada?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google