Israel could ‘significantly widen’ land offensive in Gaza

Gaza officials say 35 Palestinians killed since Israel sent ground forces into enclave

Fri, Jul 18, 2014, 21:26

Israel intensified its land offensive in Gaza with artillery, tanks and gunboats today and warned it could “significantly widen” an operation Palestinian officials said was killing ever greater numbers of civilians.

Palestinian health officials said 35 Palestinians, including a baby, four children and a 70-year-old woman, had been killed since Israel yesterday sent ground forces into the densely populated enclave of 1.8 million Palestinians.

The Israeli military said it killed 17 Palestinian gunmen while another 13 surrendered and were taken for questioning after the infantry and tank assault began in the Islamist Hamas-dominated territory.

One Israeli soldier was killed and several others were wounded in the Gaza Strip operations, in which some 150 targets, including 21 concealed rocket launchers and four tunnels, have been attacked, according to the military.

US president Barack Obama today said he had spoken to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, underscoring the US support for Israel to defend itself but raising concerns about consequences of wider conflict.

The Israeli land advance followed 10 days of barrages against Gaza from air and sea, hundreds of rockets fired by Hamas into Israel and failed attempts by Egypt, a broker of ceasefires in previous Israeli-Palestinian flare-ups, to secure a truce.

A French diplomatic source said France had asked the Gulf Arab state of Qatar, which has close links with Hamas, to use its influence with the group to reach a ceasefire.

Gaza residents said Israeli forces has moved several hundreds metres into the north of the enclave and their deployment in the south of the territory was slightly deeper.

Rocket salvoes, many of them intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile shield system, continued today against southern Israel and the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, police said, causing no casualties.

“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,” Mr Netanyahu told reporters before a special cabinet session at Tel Aviv military headquarters. “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 and moving weaponry.

One such infiltration was thwarted yesterday, with the army saying it had repelled 13 Hamas gunmen after they emerged from a tunnel close to an Israeli farming community.

To back up regular forces, Israel said it was calling up 18,000 military reservists, adding to 30,000 already mobilised.

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

Hamas wants Israel and Egypt, whose military-backed government is at odds with the Palestinian Islamists, to lift border restrictions that have deepened Gaza’s economic hardship and unemployment.

In all, 268 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed since the fighting began on July 8th, and it has also destroyed hundreds of homes, Gaza officials said.

There have been two Israeli fatalities - the soldier and a civilian, who was killed by a rocket. More than 100 rocket bursts a day at southern Israel and the heartland Tel Aviv area have sent hundreds of thousands dashing for shelters.