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Israel begins Gaza ground assault, UN warns on civilians

Agence France-Presse

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Israel begins Gaza ground assault, UN warns on civilians


The late Thursday assault follows a brief humanitarian truce and an urgent appeal by both Washington and the UN that Israel redouble its efforts to avoid harm to civilians

GAZA CITY – Israel began a ground operation in Gaza as a deadly offensive to stamp out rocket fire from the Hamas-run enclave that has cost 247 Palestinian lives entered its 11th day Friday, July 18.

The late Thursday (July 17) assault follows a brief humanitarian truce and an urgent appeal by both Washington and the UN that Israel redouble its efforts to avoid harm to civilians.

“I regret that despite my repeated urgings, and those of many regional and world leaders together, an already dangerous conflict has now escalated even further,” UN chief Ban Ki-moon told reporters, urging Israel to “do far more” to spare Palestinian civilians.

Hamas said the ground operation was destined to fail and that Israel would pay a high price.

“What the occupier Israel failed to achieve through its air and sea raids, it will not be able to achieve with a ground offensive. It is bound to fail,” Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal from his exile in Doha.

A Hamas spokesman in Gaza earlier said “Israel will pay a high price” for launching the ground operation and that his Islamist movement “is ready for the confrontation”.

“Following 10 days of Hamas attacks by land, air and sea, and after repeated rejections of offers to de-escalate the situation, the Israel Defence Forces (army) has initiated a ground operation within the Gaza Strip,” the army said.

Israel approved the call-up of another 18,000 reservists, taking the total number approved to 65,000 for an operation aimed at protecting Israeli lives and strike “a significant blow to Hamas’s terror infrastructure,” the army said.

Shortly beforehand, the military began an intensive bombardment of Gaza by air and sea as well as by tanks massed along the border.

Salvoes of rockets lit up the sky, and a seafront hotel in Gaza City housing scores of journalists shook violently with the force of the shelling by sea, an Agenc France-Presse correspondent said.

Israel launched Operation Protective Edge on July 8 to stamp out rocket fire from Gaza, pounding the enclave from both the air and the sea.

Egypt lashed out at Hamas on Thursday, saying it could have saved dozens of lives had it accepted an truce brokered by Cairo but also condemned the “Israeli escalation.

“Had Hamas accepted the Egyptian proposal, it could have saved the lives of at least 40 Palestinians,” said Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri.

An initial ceasefire proposal which was to begin on Tuesday, July 15, was accepted by Israel but ignored by Hamas, which continued to fire rockets over the border.

Targeting tunnels

Israel said the aim of the operation was to destroy the network of tunnels riddling the Gaza Strip, some of which are used for assembling rockets and others used for staging cross-border attacks on southern Israel. One such attack was foiled by Israeli forces early Thursday.

“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, this evening instructed the IDF to commence ground action to strike at the terrorist tunnels from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory,” a statement from the premier’s office said.

A military spokesman said Israel had decided to send in troops after repeated efforts to end the conflict had failed.

“We have tried three times in the last ten days to de-escalate; every time we have been met with more aggression,” Major Arye Shalicar told Agence France-Presse.

“Our goal is to strike Hamas infrastructure and operatives in several places in the strip – north, east and south. Part of the infrastructure that we will target is tunnels.”

Experts have said a ground operation is the only way of reaching targets unattainable from the air, such as Hamas’s network of tunnels.

Military spokesman General Moti Almoz urged Gaza residents to flee areas where the army was operating, warning that the ground campaign would “be extended as much as necessary.”

Following an appeal by Washington and the UN, the military pledged to invest “unprecedented efforts” to limit harm to civilians.

On the ground, Palestinian witnesses reported gun battles breaking out east of the southern city of Khan Yunis, with military sources confirming it was one of the areas in which the troops were operating.

Since the operation was announced, six Palestinians have been killed, including a five-month-baby, raising the overall death toll in Gaza to 247, medics said.

Truce efforts

Since the ground incursion began, a dozen rockets fired by Gaza militants hit Israel causing no injuries, with another 14 intercepted, the army said.

Military figures also show that 1,150 rockets fired from Gaza have hit Israel from July 8 to Thursday, and another 311 shot down by the Iron Dome air defense system.

Meanwhile, the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency said it had launched a probe after finding 20 rockets hidden in one of its schools in Gaza, calling it was a “flagrant violation” of international law.

Ahead of the operation, an Israeli official told Agence France-Presse a truce had been agreed with Hamas which was to have begun at 0300 GMT Friday.

But Hamas denied the claim, with spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri telling Agence France-Presse the news was “incorrect.”

Earlier on Thursday, Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo as regional efforts to end the violence continued.

During the day, Gaza residents had enjoyed a short respite for the first time in 10 days as both sides agreed to respect a five hour humanitarian lull to allow for medical aid to be transported into Gaza and let people stock up on food and other essentials. –

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