At least 27 Palestinians and an Israeli soldier were killed in Gaza on Friday, hours after Israel began a ground invasion into the strip after talks to reach a permanent ceasefire with Hamas failed to de-escalate the tension.
Explosions lit up the sky in the early hours of Friday and residents in several areas of the densely populated strip of 1.8 million Palestinians said they saw small numbers of Israeli tanks that had crossed the border from Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday a ground assault was needed because air strikes alone could not deal a sufficient blow to the militant tunnels riddling Gaza.
"Last night our forces began a ground operation to hit the terror tunnels crossing from Gaza into Israel's territory," he told a special cabinet session, broadcast live on television.
"It is not possible to deal with the tunnels only from the air."
A statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office late on Thursday said he had given orders to destroy tunnels that militants use to infiltrate Israel and carry out attacks.
It said that the ground invasion came “after repeated rejections of offers to deescalate the situation” by Hamas, the Islamist movement in control of Gaza Strip.
The military announced Friday that a soldier had been killed, and another two soldiers had been wounded, since the offensive began.
Palestinian medical sources told Reuters that at least 11 Palestinians were killed. It remained unclear if the casualties were all civilians or included Hamas combatants.
Israel signaled that the offensive is not geared towards toppling Hamas and that it mainly targets tunnels dug by the group.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri responded with defiance to Israel’s invasion announcement, telling Reuters: “We warn Netanyahu of the dreadful consequences of such a foolish act.”
Gaza residents and medical officials reported heavy shelling along the eastern border from the southern town of Rafah to the north of the strip.
Residents said heavy clashes took place along the border, including in the northern towns of Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya.
Orange flashes illuminated the eastern Gaza Strip as Israeli gunboats off the Mediterranean coast fired shells and tracer bullets. Israeli artillery pounded the area and helicopters fired across the border, witnesses told Reuters.
Rockets streaked from Gaza towards the southern Israeli towns of Ashdod and Ashkelon. Live television showed interceptions by the Iron Dome anti-missile system, and no casualties were reported.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration accused Israel of failing to do all it can to prevent civilian casualties in Gaza.
The State Department said Thursday that the high civilian death toll in Gaza has been “heartbreaking.”
Israel last mounted a large-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip during a three-week war in late 2008 and early 2009 that claimed 1,400 Palestinian and 13 Israeli lives.
Security Council to meet
The U.N. Security Council was set to meet for an emergency session Friday on the situation in Gaza, diplomats said. The meeting -- called at the request of Jordan and Turkey -- was due to begin at 3:00 pm (1900 GMT).
On Friday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan intensified his fiery rhetoric against Israel over its ground invasion of Gaza, accusing the country of state terrorism and genocide and saying the two countries will not mend ties on his watch.
Russia, Iran discuss Gaza
Meanwhile, the presidents of Iran and Russia discussed by telephone on Friday the need for an end to the conflict in Gaza and renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks, the Kremlin said.
The conversation between Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Hassan Rowhani was initiated by Tehran and was prompted by concerns over the “sharp escalation of the crisis” since Israel began its land offensive in Gaza, it said.
“Both sides stressed the need for a speedy end to the armed conflict and the resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations,” the Kremlin said. The two leaders also spoke about negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, it said.
(with Reuters and AFP)SHOW MORE