GAZA CITY / OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Israeli forces Thursday launched a ground offensive in the Gaza Strip to target the “infrastructure” of Hamas but not topple the Palestinian Islamist movement.
The move came after 10 days of intense fighting between Israel and Hamas, in which Israel hit more than 2,000 targets in Gaza and Hamas launched nearly 1,500 rockets at Israel, as the Palestinian death toll topped 230.
The army said the offensive is meant to strike a “significant blow to Hamas’ terror infrastructure.”
In a statement, it said the operation would include “infantry, armored corps, engineer corps, artillery and intelligence combined with aerial and naval support.”
“We are now continuing with the ground forces to strike terrorist infrastructure, Hamas infrastructure, in multiple areas throughout the Gaza Strip,” army spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner told reporters.
The invasion is not aimed at toppling the Palestinian territory’s dominant Islamist Hamas group, Lerner added, saying “that is not the goal of this mission.”
Reuters witnesses and Gaza residents reported heavy artillery and naval shelling and helicopter fire along the Gaza border.
A Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, called the offensive “foolish” and warned that it would have “dreadful consequences.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said he instructed the army to go ahead after Hamas rejected an Egyptian cease-fire plan earlier in the week and after Hamas fighters tried to infiltrate into Israel through a tunnel from Gaza earlier in the day.
Netanyahu’s office said the “prime minister and the defense minister ordered the army to begin a ground operation and enter Gaza to strike at the terrorist tunnels from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory.”
Israeli leaders had earlier played down prospects of a permanent Gaza cease-fire and fighting returned to a familiar pattern of Palestinian rocket salvoes and Israeli bombing after a five-hour humanitarian truce.
An Israeli official said earlier senior Israeli negotiators in Cairo had approved a full truce, but a final decision lay with the Security Cabinet.
But Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has been advocating a move into Gaza, said: “We are not familiar with the matter.”
A Hamas spokesman also denied initial comments by the Israeli official that a full truce was slated to start at early Friday morning.
Naftali Bennett, Israel’s hawkish economy minister, said time was running out for Hamas.
“We are moving from Iron Dome to an iron fist,” Bennett said, referring to an anti-missile system that has intercepted many of the rockets in 10 days of warfare.
With large contingents of Israeli infantry and tanks deployed near the Gaza border, Bennett, a member of the decision-making Security Cabinet, appeared to signal that the Jewish state would make good on its threats to carry out a ground invasion of the densely populated enclave.
“I want to wish good luck to the IDF [Israeli army] soldiers. With the IDF’s help, and God’s help, we will win,” he told reporters in the southern city of Ashkelon, a frequent target of rocket strikes.
Sirens sounded in southern Israel at the end of the five-hour cease-fire requested by the United Nations.
The military said rockets headed toward Tel Aviv, the southern city of Beersheba and Ashkelon. There were no reports of casualties or damage.
Israeli jets bombed a house in Gaza City, killing three children, and another two youngsters died in separate attacks, said Ashraf Qidra, spokesman of Gaza’s Health Ministry.
Palestinian health officials say 233 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli air and naval strikes.
One Israeli civilian has been killed by fire from Gaza.
Hours before the humanitarian cease-fire began, about a dozen Palestinian fighters tunneled under the border, emerging near an Israeli community. At least one of them was killed when Israeli aircraft bombed the group, the military said.
President Barack Obama said late Wednesday he supported Egyptian efforts to agree a cease-fire that would end the worst flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian hostilities in two years and had promised that U.S. officials would use their diplomatic resources over the next 24 hours to pursue closing a deal.
Egypt had proposed a permanent ceasefire plan Tuesday, which Israel accepted. But Hamas, saying its terms had been ignored, rejected it. Hamas wants Israel and Egypt, whose military-backed government is at odds with the Islamist group, to lift border restrictions that have deepened economic hardship among Gaza’s 1.8 million populace and caused a cash crunch in the movement, which has been unable to pay its employees for months.
Israel has long accused Palestinian militants of storing weapons in civilian facilities and using Gaza residents as human shields by launching rockets from residential areas.
The current conflict was largely triggered by the killing of three Israeli teens in the occupied West Bank last month and the murder on July 2 of a Palestinian youth in an alleged act of revenge.