Israel presses forth in Gaza ground operation, prepares to expand campaign

Israeli troops push deeper into Gaza Friday


GAZA, 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 may already 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 has already 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 had previously 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 was to leave Saturday 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.

The Israeli military said it had killed nearly 20 militants in exchanges of fire since the ground offensive started on Thursday night.

Gaza health officials said more than 50 Palestinians have been killed since then, including three young siblings from the Abu Musallam family who were killed when a tank shell hit their home.

At the morgue, 11-year-old Ahmed’s face was blackened by soot, and he and his 14-year-old sister, Walaa, and 16-year-old brother, Mohammed, were wrapped in white burial shrouds. Their father, Ismail, said the three were sleeping when the shell struck and he had to dig them out from under the rubble.

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.” 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 one in five – of the Palestinians killed children were under the age of 18. UNRWA said 40,000 Palestinians were seeking refuge in 34 of its shelters throughout the Gaza Strip.

Most countries have expressed support for Israel’s right to defend itself, while urging it to minimize civilian deaths in its ground assault. President Barack Obama spoke with Netanyahu Friday and expressed his concern “about the risks of further escalation and the loss of more innocent life.”

The operation also brought Israel its first military casualty. The circumstances behind the death of Staff Sgt. Eitan Barak, 20, were not made clear: Hamas’s military wing said it ambushed Israeli units in the northern town of Beit Lahiya. A military spokesman said Barak was likely killed by friendly fire from a tank but it was not confirmed yet. The army said a number of soldiers were also wounded. Earlier in the week, an Israeli civilian died from Palestinian mortar fire and several others have been wounded.

“The ground offensive does not scare us and we pledge to drown the occupation army in Gaza mud,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in a statement.

Israeli public opinion strongly supports the offensive after days of unrelenting rocket fire from Gaza and years of southern Israeli residents living under the threat. Gaza militants have fired more than 1,500 rockets at Israel over the past 11 days, and rocket fire continued across Israel Friday.

The order to launch the ground operation was triggered not by the rocket fire, but by a Hamas attempt to infiltrate Israel on Thursday, when 13 armed militants sneaked through a tunnel from Gaza and were killed by an airstrike as they emerged inside Israel.

The military, which has already mobilized more than 50,000 reservists, said paratroopers had uncovered eight tunnel access points across the Gaza Strip and engaged in several gun battles with Hamas militants who ambushed them.

Israeli forces are expected to spend a day or two staking ground within two miles (three kilometres) of the border in the north, east and south of the Gaza Strip. Then, they are expected to begin destroying tunnels, an operation that could take up to two weeks. Tanks, infantry and engineering forces were operating inside Gaza, where the military said it targeted rocket launchers, tunnels and more than 100 other targets.

Hamas has survived Israeli offensives in the past, including a major three-week ground operation in January 2009 and another weeklong air offensive in 2012, but in each case the militant group recovered. It now controls an arsenal of thousands of rockets, some long range and powerful, and it has built a system of underground bunkers.

But Hamas is weaker than it was during the previous two offensives, with little international or even regional support from its main allies, Turkey and Qatar. Protests against the offensive took place Friday in Turkey, Jordan and the West Bank.

Egypt, which has been pushing for a cease-fire, is at odds with Hamas’ conditions, which include a lifting of the siege of Gaza and completely open borders into the Sinai – where Egypt is already fighting Islamic extremists.

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Israel presses forth in Gaza ground operation, prepares to expand campaign

  1. ‘According to laws of armed conflict, Israel does not actually have the right to self-defense against a population that it militarily occupies.’

    For the Israelis, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. The Gazans have no place to evacuate to.

  2. FYI:
    By Tom McKay

    Most people watching the violence happening right now in Israel and Palestine can only shake their heads.

    A few people, however, are reacting like they’re watching an NFL game. CNN reporter Diana Magnay was covering the Israeli assault from a vantage point overlooking the Gaza Strip. In the background, Israelis could be heard cheering and clapping as IDF munitions hit Palestinian territory and unleashed their lethal payload. You’d probably have to be a real piece of work to find joy in a bombing campaign unfortunately directed at one of the most densely populated urban areas in the world.

    In Gaza, it would be nearly impossible for even a surgically conducted bombing campaign to avoid killing civilians. Even Washington officials aren’t so sure Israel is doing its best to do that. Two-hundred thirty-five Palestinians have been killed by the ongoing Israeli campaign, including four young boys on a beach. In the past few days, many civilians have died – and all but one of the fatalities has been Palestinian.

    Regardless of your stance on the ongoing conflict, the idea that it’s a big, fun spectacle when so many Palestinians are dying could only be considered grotesque and offensive. Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated incident. Posts about “Sderot cinema” have recently shown Israeli citizens apparently viewing the bombings like it was a July 4th fireworks show.

    The image of the Israeli spectators was taken after 9 p.m. local time on Wednesday, [reporter Allan Sorensen] said, about the same time that what was intended to be a “precision strike” from Israel’s military killed at least eight of their Palestinian neighbors, seated in similar plastic chairs at a beachside cafe in Gaza, waiting to watch the World Cup semifinal between Argentina and the Netherlands.

    This has happened before. In 2009 during Operation Cast Lead, in which around 1,400 Palestinians died, news reports captured similar scenes of Israelis cheering on the assault.

    Sorensen says that growing right-wing extremism among Israelis is partially responsible for the “vitriolic” response he later received for posting the above photo, calling “extreme incitement to violence from very right-wing Israeli groups unprecedented” in the ongoing crisis. Some far-right Jewish groups have even thrown rallies calling for the extermination of Palestinians.

    Al Jazeera America’s Melissa Etehad writes that even some social media posts by Israeli leaders appear to be inciting right-wing extremists in the nation. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for “vengeance” after the murder of three Israeli students triggered the current crisis. Another declared the “entire Palestinian people as the enemy,” receiving over 5,000 likes. Meanwhile, so-called “price tag” attacks carried out by radical Israelis living in illegal settlements in retribution for perceived or actual Palestinian affronts have been a growing problem.

    Ultimately these terrible displays of inhumanity are originating from a small but vocal minority of Israelis. And without a doubt some Palestinians cheer on horrible atrocities as well — in fact, the escalating war will probably only boost Hamas’ popularity as it inspires a reactionary backlash against Israel. But pretty much everyone should know better than to cheerlead the bombings, including those with luxury of being able to leisurely view the violence from afar.

    Tom McKay is a Live News columnist for PolicyMic, where he writes about politics, media, and technology.

    • I agree.

      We now report on war as though it’s a sports game. Plans, strategy, cheating, dives….good shots, clean wins…’s all a big game, releasing videos, instant replays…as we step over the bodies.

      I think it started with that landing, where reporters on the beach were waiting…in the dark… for the marines….


      Somalia 1992