GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip
Israeli troops pushed deeper into Gaza on 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.
The assault raised risks of a bloodier conflict amid escalating 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 already may have to decide whether to expand the operation.
With calls from Israeli hard-liners to completely crush Hamas, it remains unclear how far Israel will go in an operation that already has seen 299 Palestinians killed in 11 days of intense Israeli bombardment of the densely populated coastal strip, a fifth of them children.
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.”
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 previously had been reticent to undertake to further weaken Hamas militarily.
“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.”
In a fresh effort to broker a truce, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon will leave today for the Middle East to help mediate the Gaza conflict, U.N. officials said. A cease-fire is “indispensable” for urgently needed humanitarian efforts to succeed, the under-secretary-general for political affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, told an emergency meeting of the Security Council.
But the only way to make it stick is for the international community to “assume its responsibility to urgently help restore a serious prospect for a two-state solution that brings an end to the decades-long conflict and occupation,” he said.
The U.N. chief has been on the phone with many leaders since the beginning of the conflict trying to bring an end to the violence. His new diplomatic initiative follows a failed attempt by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to broker a return to the 2012 Israeli-Hamas cease-fire and Thursday’s launch of the Israeli ground offensive in Gaza.
The U.N. refused to say today, but Feltman said he wants to “express solidarity with Israelis and Palestinians,” so he almost certainly will visit both places, though almost certainly not Gaza for security reasons.
The Israeli military said it had killed nearly 20 militants in exchanges of fire since the ground offensive started Thursday night.
Gaza health officials said more than 50 Palestinians have been killed since then.
Israel says it is going to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties and blames them on Hamas, accusing it of firing from within residential neighborhoods and using its civilians as “human shields.” On Thursday, the U.N. refugee agency for Palestinians, UNRWA, said a routine check in one of its vacant Gaza schools found about 20 hidden rockets and called on militants to respect the “sanctity and integrity” of U.N. property.
Critics say it is the intense fire itself in such a densely populated area that leads to the deaths of innocent civilians. The U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF, said at least 59 — or 1 in 5 — of the Palestinians killed were children under age 18. UNRWA said 40,000 Palestinians were seeking refuge in 34 of its shelters throughout the Gaza Strip.