Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he ordered the military to prepare for a wider ground operation against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, where residents hunkered down in their homes or sought sanctuary with others as the violence mounted.
Israeli soldiers, backed by tanks, heavy artillery, aircraft and warships, moved into the Hamas-controlled enclave late yesterday after 2,100 air strikes over 10 days failed to quash barrages of rockets fired from Gaza at Israel. Gaza fighters also infiltrated Israel by sea and through what Israel says is a network of tunnels dug under the border.
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At least 264 Palestinians, including dozens of children, and two Israelis have been killed since fighting intensified last week. Israel had held off for days on a ground operation, which is liable to send casualties on both sides spiking, even as it mobilized tens of thousands of reserves soldiers. Ground troops were sent in to the densely populated territory of 1.8 million after Israel foiled a raid by Gaza militants who crossed the border through a tunnel, Netanyahu said.
The objective of the ground incursion is to go after "terror tunnels" that have eluded the air force and restore peace to Israel, he said in televised comments before his cabinet met at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv. The military has been instructed "to prepare for a significant expansion of the ground operation," he said.
'Hearing the Bombs'
Israel has clashed with Gaza militants repeatedly since 2005, when it ended its 38-year occupation of the territory while restricting, along with Egypt, the movement of its people and goods by controlling border crossings. The incursion is the first significant Israeli ground offensive in Gaza in more than five years.
After the Israeli troops poured in, power was lost in large areas of Gaza, leaving Ahmed Madhoun, his wife and six children sitting in the dark listening to a battery-powered radio. "Outside I keep hearing the bombs and inside, we're listening to the reports of people getting killed," the 46-year-old resident of Gaza City's Sheikh Radwan neighborhood said. "Nobody's in the street, just ambulances." Television footage showed people carrying casualties in deserted streets.
Al-Jazeera television reported that 21 Palestinians have been killed since dawn and that the military's targets included a building housing media outlets. The UN Relief and Works Agency said in an e-mailed statement that "many" Palestinians were displaced in southern Gaza and about 22,000 were sheltered in UN facilities in northern and central Gaza. The 140-square-mile (363 square kilometer) territory is about the size of Detroit.
Hamas's armed wing, the Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades, published a statement saying: "We have been eagerly awaiting this ground operation to teach the Israelis a lesson." The U.S. and European Union label the Islamist Hamas, whose charter calls for Israel's destruction, a terrorist organization.
The United Nations called on Israel to show restraint and the U.S. called for a pinpoint strike against tunnels in line with the contours Netanyahu set out. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who traveled to Egypt seeking a cease-fire, warned that the incursion would complicate the situation, according to the official Palestinian news agency Wafa.
Shares of Israeli companies listed in the U.S. declined yesterday to the lowest level in a week after the ground offensive was announced. The Bloomberg Israel-US Equity index fell 1 percent to 116.78 in New York, led by Mellanox Technologies Ltd., which tumbled 3.5 percent.
The Israeli shekel weakened 0.4 percent to 3.4275 per dollar yesterday, the sharpest decline since May 20. It was up 0.2 percent today at 13:14 p.m. The Tel Aviv Stock Exchange was closed when troops moved across the border.
The violence flared after youths on both sides of the conflict were kidnapped and killed in recent weeks.
Dozens of rockets continued to fly toward Israel after ground troops went in, bringing the total to nearly 1,600 since the aerial campaign began last week, the Israeli military said. The rockets have reached further into Israel than ever before, as far as 80 miles (128 kilometers) north, and hundreds have been intercepted by missile defenses.
Israel called up 48,000 reservists before the invasion, and Channel 2 TV said ministers have authorized the mobilization of 18,000 more. The chief military spokesman, Brigadier-General Moti Almoz told Channel 2 today that a "very large" force is targeting tunnels, Hamas operatives and munitions.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed to Israel to show restraint and limit civilian casualties. "I regret that despite my repeated urgings, and those of many regional and world leaders together, an already dangerous conflict has now escalated even further," he said. "There can be no military solution to this conflict."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a phone call with Netanyahu, reaffirmed Israel's right to defend itself "against terrorist threats emanating from tunnels into Israel" and urged a "precise operation to target tunnels," according to a U.S. State Department statement on the call yesterday. Kerry also emphasized the importance of doing "everything possible" to prevent civilian casualties, according to the statement.
--With assistance from Calev Ben-David in Jerusalem and Shoshanna Solomon in Tel Aviv.
To contact the reporters on this story: Jonathan Ferziger in Tel Aviv at jferzigerbloomberg.net; Saud Abu Ramadan in Jerusalem at sramadanbloomberg.net To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alaa Shahine at asalhabloomberg.net Amy Teibel