GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip
The heavy thud of tank shells, often just seconds apart, echoed across the Gaza Strip early today 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 after 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.
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.