Israeli army set for ground invasion of Gaza

Palestinians report 96 deaths from Israeli assault, 22 them children

An Israeli ground offensive into Gaza looks increasingly likely this weekend as rocket fire from the Palestinian coastal enclave continues despite round- the-clock Israeli aerial assault.

Palestinian officials said the death toll from four days of Israeli air strikes was at least 96, after 11 people were killed in the bombardment yesterday. Health officials said at least 22 of the dead were children.

Some 700 Palestinians have also been wounded. Israel says "dozens of terrorists" are among the dead. Up to last night there had been no fatalities on the Israeli side.

Israel says it is determined to end cross-border rocket attacks that intensified last month after its forces arrested hundreds of activists from the Islamist Hamas movement in the occupied West Bank following the abduction there of three Jewish teenagers later found killed. A Palestinian youth was then killed in Jerusalem in a suspected Israeli revenge attack.

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu said the military offensive would continue until it was clear all rocket fire on Israeli towns had ended. Asked whether Israel was preparing a ground invasion, he said: "We are preparing all options."

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri sounded a defiant note: "Our backs are to the wall and we have nothing to lose. We are ready to battle until the end."

United Nations human rights commissioner Navi Pillay expressed concern the Israeli army was violating international law by launching strikes on Gaza. "We have received disturbing reports of civilians, including children, that have been affected by attacks on their homes, and there is growing fear that the Israeli attacks do not comply with international law, and violate human rights," she said.

Calm or catastrophe

The Israeli army’s top general, chief of staff Lt Col

Benny Gantz

, said the military was awaiting instruction. “Terrorists in Gaza understand that they’ve made a big mistake. Gaza is slowly sinking into the abyss, ” he said. “We’ve yet to exhaust our offensive capabilities. Gaza needs to choose whether it’s heading for calm or for a security catastrophe.”

The most likely scenario is a limited ground offensive that includes infantry, combat engineers and armoured corps.

Mr Netanyahu, who spoke yesterday with UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel and US secretary of state John Kerry, said Israel would continue to strike "decisive" blows against Hamas, adding that no "terror entity" in Gaza was immune from Israel's long arm. No normal country would accept a situation in which rockets were fired on their cities and towns, he said.

A senior Israeli army official says 2,000 rockets and mortar shells have been destroyed in Gaza since the beginning of Operation “Protective Edge” on Tuesday. According to army intelligence, Hamas possessed 6,000 rockets and mortars before the operation began.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, called on Hamas to stop its rocket fire. "What are you trying to achieve by sending rockets?" he asked on Palestine TV, without referring to Hamas. "We prefer to fight with wisdom and politics."

‘Watching from sidelines’

Hamas Gaza spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Mr Abbas was watching the conflict from the sidelines. “Israel started the conflict but it will not decide how it will end,” he said.

Sirens wailed across large areas of southern and central Israel again yesterday.

A 61-year-old disabled man who was unable to exit his car when the air raid siren went off was severely injured when a rocket from Gaza hit a petrol station in the southern Israeli port city of Ashdod, starting a massive fire. An Israeli plane bombed the site from which the army said the rocket was fired.

Earlier yesterday, three rockets were fired from southern Lebanon into northern Israel. Israel retaliated with artillery fire. It is believed that a rogue Palestinian group or a local Sunni Muslim organisation was responsible and the firing does not mark the opening of a second front on Israel's northern border.