Israel expanded its military operations against Gaza militants late on Thursday, sending infantry and tanks into the coastal enclave from which hundreds of rockets have been fired at Israeli cities and towns in recent weeks.
The purpose of the ground offensive is not to topple Hamas, according to Israel, even if the Jewish state blames the radical Islamist group for the inciting the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rather, the army seeks to degrade militants’ ability to fire rockets into Israel and destroy tunnels that are used by terrorists to enter the country.
One such infiltration was thwarted earlier on Thursday when an Israeli jet bombed gunmen as they emerged from a tunnel close to an Israeli farming community in the south.
One Israeli soldier was killed during the first day of the ground operation while several were wounded.
“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 told reporters before a special cabinet session at Tel Aviv military headquarters. “The main goal is to restore quiet.”
Brigadier General Moti Almoz, the army’s spokesman, said, “The operation has reached its ground phase. Large numbers of forces began a focused effort to destroy tunnels in Gaza.”
Almoz added that airstrikes will also continue. The Palestinians say 260 Gaza residents have died in bombardments since the fighting began ten days, despite Israeli warnings to civilians to abandon their homes when a strike is imminent.
Tension between the Israelis and Palestinians intensified last month when Israeli soldiers arrested hundreds of suspected Hamas activists in the West Bank while searching for three missing Jewish teenagers. After they had been found dead, a Palestinian youth was murdered in Jerusalem. Believed to be a revenge killing, the incident sparked riots in Israel and the Palestinian territories and led to an increase in rocket attacks from Gaza.
While rocket fire has forced hundreds of thousands of Israelis to seek shelter several times per day, only one civilian has been killed when he was hit by the fragment of a mortar shell near the Gaza border. The low casualty count is largely because Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system has proven so effective at intercepting projectiles that are headed for populated areas.