JERUSALEM — Israel began a ground invasion into the Gaza Strip Thursday night, saying it would target tunnels that infiltrate its territory, after cease-fire talks failed to de-escalate the air war that has raged for 10 days.
The military released a statement saying the goal of the operation, which began shortly after 10 p.m. local time, was to “establish a reality in which Israeli residents can live in safety and security without continuous indiscriminate terror.”
Palestinian residents and journalists in Gaza reported heavy artillery fire from ground troops in the north and from Israeli naval gunboats stationed near Gaza’s port, as well as a continuing air assault. Residents in the northern Gaza Strip said they could hear the sound of tanks entering from Beit Lahiya.
Along the Gaza City seafront, the sounds of war were intensifying Thursday night. There was a near-constant staccato of gunboats firing artillery in bursts of five blasts, sending flashes above the dark sea. The thunderlike rumble of impact could occasionally be heard inland. F-16s whooshed over the city, followed by the thud of their strikes. Behind it all was the high-pitched, ambient hum of drones, heard even over the call to prayer from the mosques.
Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for Hamas, the Islamic militant group that governs the Gaza Strip, issued a statement calling the invasion “a dangerous step,” and said, referring to Israel, “The occupation will pay its price expensively, and Hamas is ready for confrontation.”
The Israeli strikes hit a range of targets, including a rehabilitation hospital, and earlier killed four young children as they played on a roof in eastern Gaza City. At the same time, scores of rockets from Gaza continued to stream into cities all over central and southern Israel. The hostilities quickly resumed at the end of a 5-hour humanitarian window that both sides had agreed to early Thursday.
A military spokesman, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, said the next stage of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge would penetrate the north, east and south of Gaza with ground forces. He said it was not aimed at toppling Hamas from its longtime rule of Gaza, but would “make sure that the Hamas terrorists will be pursued, paralyzed and threatened” by the force of the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF.
“We will be striking the infrastructure, we will be striking the operatives, in order to safeguard the citizens of Israel,” Col. Lerner told reporters in an 11 p.m. conference call. “The IDF is not bound by a time frame. We are operating to implement our goals.”
Col. Lerner said additional reservists would be mobilized, adding to the 50,000 already called up for the operation, and that the ground forces in Gaza would include infantry, artillery, armored corps and engineering corps, supported by Israel’s “vast intelligence capabilities” and aerial and naval bombardment.
Asked what Gaza residents should do to stay safe during the invasion, Col. Lerner said: “Refrain and keep away from Hamas terrorists. Keep away from the infrastructure which is being used against the state of Israel. That’s the best advice we can give them.”
The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement that the ground incursion had the approval of the Israeli Cabinet, and that the prime minister and the defense minister had instructed the military “to be ready to broaden the ground operation.”
The statement added that the ground incursion came after Israeli forces thwarted an infiltration into Israel through a tunnel from Gaza early Thursday, averting what it said would have been “a mass terrorist attack against Israeli civilians.” It also comes after Israel accepted an Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire that was rejected by Hamas, which continued to fire rockets at Israel, the Israeli statement said, adding, “In light of the constant and criminal aggression of Hamas and its dangerous infiltration into Israeli territory, Israel is obligated to act to defend its citizens.”
The humanitarian pause, requested by the United Nations, came after Israel foiled the predawn attack on the tunnel. It was interrupted by a brief flurry of mortar shells fired from Gaza that fell in open ground near the Gaza border, but otherwise, the quiet held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., allowing Gaza residents to safely come out of their homes to shop and survey the damage the battle had wrought.
Even during the humanitarian pause, many streets in Gaza remained quiet; people were unsure how safe things would remain, mindful of how a previous proposed cease-fire Tuesday had broken down after just a few hours. On the beach near Gaza City’s small fishing harbor, where four boys were killed by an Israeli airstrike as they played Wednesday, children who often played there had not returned.
The Palestinian death toll before the invasion exceeded 220, many of them civilians; one Israeli had been killed.
The Health Ministry in Gaza reported three Palestinian fatalities early Thursday. The dead included a man killed in an airstrike on a house in Beit Lahiya; another man, 67, who was killed in a strike while on his way to the mosque for the dawn prayer in Rafah in the south; and a woman, 71, who died of injuries she sustained in an earlier strike in Khan Younis.
The incursion through the tunnel into Israel at 4:30 a.m. was the first during the current hostilities. Col. Lerner noted that Israel had uncovered four other tunnels from Gaza over the last 18 months and said, “We are concerned with this, and we are operating in order to strike those capabilities.”
Earlier on Thursday, Palestinian, Egyptian, Israeli and U.S. officials said intense discussions were underway on terms for a cease-fire, but none was willing to be quoted by name. A high-level Israeli delegation returned from Cairo, where Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Tony Blair, the envoy of the so-called Quartet of Middle East peacemakers, met Wednesday with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. “The effort to achieve an end of the violence is ongoing,” said one senior Israeli official. “We’re not there yet.”
The U.N. said Thursday that it had discovered 20 rockets hidden in a vacant school in Gaza during a regular inspection Wednesday. The U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which assists Palestinian refugees, called the use of a school to hide weaponry a “flagrant violation” of international law protecting civilians. “This incident, which is the first of its kind in Gaza, endangered civilians including staff and put at risk UNRWA’s vital mission to assist and protect Palestine refugees in Gaza,” the agency said in a statement.
Agency officials notified Palestinian and Israeli authorities of the discovery and took steps to remove the rockets. The agency said it was launching a full investigation of the incident.
Also Thursday, Israeli authorities formally indicted three Israelis suspected of having killed a 16-year-old Palestinian boy in Jerusalem. Officials said they believed that the killing was carried out to avenge the abduction and murder of three young Israelis last month.
First Published July 17, 2014 12:00 AM