Smoke from flares rise July 17 in Gaza City, in the northern Gaza Strip. Israel launched a large-scale ground offensive in the Gaza Strip, escalating a 10-day military operation to try to destroy Hamas' weapons arsenal, rocket firing abilities and tunnels under the Palestinian territory's border with Israel. (Lefteris Pitarakis / AP)
JERUSALEM — Israeli forces launched a ground operation into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip following several hours of heavy rocket fire into southern and central Israel by Gaza militants.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the Israel Defense Forces to destroy tunnels used by militants to launch attacks in Israel, said a statement from Netanyahu’s office said.
“Through terror tunnels such as these Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israeli territory early this morning with the aim of carrying out mass terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens,” the statement said.
Not long after a heavy barrage of rockets was fired at Tel Aviv and other parts of the country, thousands of soldiers backed by tanks and huge DC9 bulldozers entered the Hamas-ruled territory after 10 p.m. Thursday, security officials and Israeli media said.
Israeli news stations reported that Israel began its operation by shelling the northern Gaza Strip. Channel 10 News reported that the air force stepped up its aerial strikes while the navy fired from the sea.
The late-night broadcasts showed northern Gaza lit up by flares from Israeli forces.
Thousands of soldiers backed by tanks and huge DC9 bulldozers entered the Hamas-ruled territory after 10 p.m. Thursday, security officials and Israeli media said.
Shortly before the operation the Defense Forces instructed Israeli residents living near the Gaza border to remain in their homes.
The goal of the operation is to target Hamas infrastructure, including tunnels, storage facilities, launching pads and any structures the group uses to launch its rockets, Lt. Libby Weiss, an Defense Forces spokeswoman told USA Today.
“We have a substantial amount of forces, though I can’t specify numbers,” Weiss said. “These include armored forces, infantry, artillery, and aerial and naval support. This is not a time-bound operation. It’s a goal bound operation.
She said civilians are not the target, stressing that Israeli forces will continue to take measures to minimize civilian casualties.
Thousands of Israeli soldiers had massed on the border with Gaza in recent days, waiting for the order to go in.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Israel “will pay dearly” for the assault. “Hamas is ready for a confrontation,” he said.
Security officials reported heavy Israeli shelling in eastern Gaza, near the border with Israel.
The ground offensive is the first major Israeli incursion in Gaza in just over five years and came after 10 days of heavy fighting between Israel and Hamas militants. Israeli strikes have hit more than 2,000 targets in Gaza and Hamas launched nearly 1,500 rockets at Israel, the Israeli military has said.
The incursion also follows a brief lull Thursday to allow Gaza residents to stock up on food and other supplies.
Two hours into that cease-fire early Thursday, Israelis near the border were forced back into bomb shelters after rockets were launched at them. After that, the five-hour truce held until exactly at its end, when Gaza militants began launching at least 40 rockets and mortars into Israeli towns and cities. Sirens sounded as far north as Herzilya, in the center of Israel.
Israel responded by launching two airstrikes at the Gaza Strip, the Associated Press reported.
Egypt, which has been pushing for a cease-fire to end the conflict that began July 8, continued its diplomatic efforts Thursday. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi met with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas after Egyptian officials met with representatives of Israel and Hamas in Cairo.
Israel had accepted Egypt’s call this week to halt the fighting, but Hamas rejected it, saying it wanted more concessions that include easing a blockade of Gaza by Israel and Egypt.
The cross-border fighting has so far killed more than 220 Palestinians and one Israeli.
On Thursday, the U.N. agency caring for Palestinian refugees, announced that it had discovered rockets hidden in a vacant Gaza school.
“UNRWA strongly condemns the group or groups responsible for placing the weapons in one of its installations,” it said in a statement.
“This is a flagrant violation of the inviolability of its premises under international law,” it adds.
This incident “endangered civilians including staff and put at risk UNRWA’s vital mission to assist and protect Palestine refugees in Gaza.”
Also on Thursday, Israel’s Ministry of Defense said the murder of a 16-year-old Arab resident of East Jerusalem was a terror attack, for which three Jews were indicted on murder charges.
Muhammed Abu Khdeir was kidnapped on July 2 and his burned body was discovered in a Jerusalem forest a few hours later. His murder, following the abduction and murder of three Israeli teens in the West Bank, sparked widespread Arab rioting in East Jerusalem and throughout Israel and precipitated the current fighting.
The move to designate Abu Khdeir as a terror victim “was made as a result of the indictment and the findings of the investigation, which point to the nationalist motive of his murder,” the ministry said.
A 29-year-old man and two 17-year-olds, who have not been named, were indicted for the murder. The Shin Bet security services said the suspects confessed to the crime, which they said was to avenge the murder of the three Israeli teens, who were kidnapped on June 12. Israel blames Hamas for that crime. The teens were buried the day before Abu Khdeir was killed.
The designation as a terror victim entitles Abu Khdeir’s family to financial benefits provided by Israel’s National Insurance Institute. Although many Arab families in Israel receive such benefits due to terror attacks carried out by Palestinians, the government rarely designates crimes committed by Jews a terror attack.
Dumalaon reported from Berlin, Michele Chabin reported from Jerusalem. Contributing: Associated Press