A first-hand account of the beginning of a ground invasion

Unable to sleep with the din of explosions, journalist Ruadhán Mac Cormaic sat and watched an extraordinary scene unfold

Israeli flares light up the sky in the northern Gaza Strip. Israeli troops pushed deeper into Gaza yesterday to destroy rocket launching sites and tunnels, firing volleys of tank shells and clashing with Palestinian fighters. Photograph: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Photo

Israeli flares light up the sky in the northern Gaza Strip. Israeli troops pushed deeper into Gaza yesterday to destroy rocket launching sites and tunnels, firing volleys of tank shells and clashing with Palestinian fighters. Photograph: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Photo

Sat, Jul 19, 2014, 01:01

By early evening, it was clear that something was afoot. From the hotel terrace, at least two Israeli naval ships – normally so far out that they can barely be seen – were now illuminated and close to the shore. Their shelling was far more intense than usual, sending up to five salvos at a time – one thud for the launch, another for the impact at an unseen spot to the north. News of the shooting down of a passenger jet over Ukraine was on everyone lips, but as the barrage grew louder conversations tapered off.

Occasionally at first, then at intervals of no more than a few minutes, bright orange bursts lit up the sky. The buzzing drones, loud and ominous, seemed closer than ever. Two theories began to spread: either a ceasefire was near or a ground invasion was in the offing. By 10.30pm, the Israeli authorities confirmed it was the latter.

Quickly it ratcheted up. Soon Apache helicopters were spotted in the air and rumours circulated of an amphibious landing. The bombing – deep and unsettling – grew more intense and the sky turned a dazzling orange. In texts from elsewhere in the city, journalists reported being told by the Israel Defence Forces to leave their hotels. Some took refuge for the night in the office of a media group, others in a French cultural centre. People kept their windows open to avoid them blasting in. Unable to sleep with the din of incessant explosions, I and many others simply sat and watched the extraordinary scene until morning. At one point, I looked on as the lights went out on a whole swathe of northern Gaza – just like that.

The Israeli offensive, while limited, clearly raises the military and diplomatic stakes, but it also makes the conflict even more distressingly unpredictable for the people of Gaza. If it means that the border crossings to Israel are to close, then the enclave will be entirely sealed off from the outside.

The confusion that initially greeted the Israeli operation is partly explained by the fact that, for several hours leading up to it, journalists were picking up signals that a ceasefire was in the offing. Just hours before Israeli troops crossed the border, the BBC and Reuters had reported that a truce was to come into effect at 6am yesterday. Separately, the Israeli side had announced that the security cabinet would meet the following morning to decide on its next step.

It now appears that the Israelis may have been spinning in an attempt to disguise their plans and wrong-foot Hamas. In an account of the build up to the Israelis’ decision, the well-sourced Haaretz journalist Barak Ravid reported that the operation began after Israel’s inner cabinet met in secret on Thursday night in Tel Aviv. In a “deceptive manoeuvre” designed to give Israel the advantages of a surprise offensive, journalists were told the cabinet wouldn’t meet until yesterday morning. In fact, the article suggested, cabinet members had already approved the ground operation when it met on Tuesday night, after the Egyptian ceasefire initiative fell through.

“We chose to start this operation after we exhausted other options and reached the conclusion that without it we could pay a much higher price,” prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after another cabinet meeting yesterday. “The main goal is to restore quiet.

“My instructions...to the Israeli army, with the approval of the security cabinet, is to prepare for the possibility of a widening, a significant widening of the ground operation.” He did not say what form a broadened offensive might take. Israel says its forces have focused so far on seeking out tunnels Palestinian militants might use for cross-border raids.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri responded with defiance to the Israeli escalation: “The ground invasion doesn’t frighten us and the occupation army will sink in Gaza’s mud.”

In the meantime, the people of Gaza hunker down and wait. As darkness fell after a relatively quiet afternoon yesterday, the ferocious pounding resumed.