Gaza death toll hits 271 as Israel launches ground offensive

Gaza death toll hits 271 as Israel launches ground offensive

GAZA CITY - Agence France-Presse
Gaza death toll hits 271 as Israel launches ground offensive

Israeli soldiers work on their Merkava tanks in an army deployment area near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip on July 12. AFP Photo / Menahem Kahana

Israeli forces backed by tanks and warplanes July 18 pushed into the edges of Gaza in a major operation to destroy Hamas tunnels that the Palestinian Islamist group warned was doomed to fail.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that air strikes alone could not deal a sufficient blow to the militant tunnels riddling Gaza, so a ground assault was needed.
"Last night our forces began a ground operation to hit the terror tunnels crossing from Gaza into Israel's territory," he told a special cabinet session, broadcast live on television. "It is not possible to deal with the tunnels only from the air."

He also warned that the operation could yet be widened, amid growing international calls to avoid harm to civilians. "My instructions and those of the defence minister to the military ... is to prepare for the possibility of a significant broadening of the ground activity," he told ministers in Tel Aviv.

At least three Palestinians were killed in fresh Israeli bombing in central and southern Gaza July 18 afternoon, medics said. The deaths brought the toll to 271 as Israel's offensive against Gaza entered its 11th day, with the army pounding the coastal strip by air and sea as well as from tanks massed along the border.

An Israeli soldier was killed during the launch July 17 night of land operations on the edges of the Gaza Strip, raising the death toll on the Israeli side to two, the army said.

Civilians were fleeing areas adjoining the border with Israel, with as many as around 30,000 sheltering in United Nations facilities, a U.N. official told AFP.        

"They were shelling from dusk until the early hours of the morning. We've left the eastern front and we're going to a U.N. school," Shejaiya resident Bassil Araeer told AFP.

"There's no water at home, no electricity at home, just shelling and fear and terror," he said.         During the overnight violence, an Israeli soldier was killed and a five-month-old baby was among 19 Palestinian dead.        

Israel said it was pressing ahead with the operation to destroy a network of tunnels that riddle the Gaza strip, used by Palestinian militants to assemble rockets and stage cross-border attacks.

Army spokesman Major Arye Shalicar told AFP that Israel's goal was "to strike Hamas infrastructure and operatives" in Gaza, including tunnels.

Experts say a ground operation is the only way of reaching targets unattainable from the air, such as the underground network.

Kerry urges 'precision'

Before the offensive began late Thursday, the army said it had foiled an underground raid in which 13 Gaza militants managed to infiltrate southern Israel before being spotted by troops. Warplanes killed at least one of the attackers, and the rest scampered back to the tunnel.

The Israeli assault followed a brief humanitarian truce and urgent diplomatic appeals that Israel redouble efforts to avoid harm to civilians.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged Israel to limit collateral damage in Gaza and be "precise" in its ground assault on the enclave, the State Department said.        

In a telephone call to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Kerry stressed "the need to avoid further escalation and to restore the 2012 ceasefire as soon as possible."       

But the Hamas, the main power in Gaza, said the Israeli operation was destined to fail. "What the occupier Israel failed to achieve through its air and sea raids, it will not be able to achieve with a ground offensive. It is bound to fail," exiled Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal said in Doha.

Earlier, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza warned Israel would "pay a high price" for the ground operation and that its militants "ready" for the confrontation".

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas warned the Israeli operation would only lead to "more bloodshed" and complicate ceasefire efforts.

Meanwhile, Israel approved the call-up of another 18,000 reservists, taking the total number approved to 65,000, the army said.

Shortly before putting boots on the ground, the military began an intensive bombardment of Gaza by air and sea, as well as from tanks massed along the border.

A military spokeswoman told AFP that ground and air forces had attacked at least 36 targets in Gaza since the incursion was launched.