Israel is mobilizing 20,000 soldiers for a possible ground invasion of the Gaza Strip to halt rocket bombardments on its south, as regional and world leaders appealed for an end to the violence.
The Palestinian death toll from three days of stepped-up Israeli air strikes climbed past 80.
“Where is this leading, is it leading to a ground force incursion? I can’t confirm that,” Israel army spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner said today in a phone briefing. “I can confirm we are making all the necessary preparations to be ready for that.” Earlier this week, the military was authorized to call up as many as 40,000 reserve troops.
A ground invasion, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted at yesterday with talk of tougher action, would exact a heavier toll from both the Hamas movement that controls Gaza and Palestinian civilians. It would also increase international pressure on Israel to end its offensive, begun after rocket fire from Gaza escalated a month ago. The United Nations Security Council is to hold an emergency meeting on the violence today amid foreign attempts to stop it.
In this charged atmosphere, Israeli security forces stopped a truck with Palestinian license plates, carrying explosives and gas cannisters, at a West Bank checkpoint, police said in a text message. The two people inside the vehicle, who have been arrested, were apparently planning to attack an Israeli target, police said.
Eighty-one Gazans have been killed since Israel ramped up its offensive on Tuesday, more than two-thirds of them civilians, emergency medical services chief Ashraf al-Qedra said by phone. At least 10 were children, according to an e-mailed statement from the United Nations Relief Works Agency.
Three of the people killed in Gaza today were senior figures in the territory’s rocket operations, the military said. No Israelis have been killed or seriously injured by the more than 440 rockets the army said were fired since June 8.
Israel’s benchmark TA-25 index fell 0.3 percent at the close in Tel Aviv. The shekel was little changed at 3.4305 to the dollar.
Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Al-Hamdallah, in comments to reporters in Ramallah, called Israel’s killing of civilians “a war crime.” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has asked UN chief Ban Ki-moon and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi to help end the fighting.
“There are contacts with regional and international parties to end the military operations and we are asking Israel to show self restraint and to stop military action,” Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdelatty said by phone.
While Egypt traditionally has mediated truces between Israel and Gaza militants, the dynamic changed after it banned the Islamist Hamas’s activities on Egyptian soil earlier this year. Israel, the U.S. and European Union consider Hamas a terrorist group and shun it.
Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. is trying to see if it’s possible to end the “very, very dangerous” violence.
“No country can accept rocket fire aimed at civilians and we support completely Israel’s right to defend itself against these vicious attacks,” Kerry told reporters in Beijing today. “But de-escalation ultimately is in the interest of all parties” in order to protect Israel “while at the same time not seeing innocent people brought into the line of fire.”
UN chief Ban said he has asked Egypt to help restore the Egyptian-brokered truce that ended the last Israeli campaign in November 2012. Qatar is also involved in cease-fire efforts, he said. “Gaza, and the region as a whole, cannot afford another full-blown war,” Ban said, according to an e-mailed transcript from the UN of his remarks at a news conference yesterday.
Fighting flared over the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank last month, which Israel blamed on Hamas, and the suspected revenge killing of a Palestinian youth in Jerusalem.
Israel has struck more than 650 targets in Gaza since it ramped up its offensive against rocket operations three days ago, including tunnels militants dug under the border with Israel, their homes, rocket launchers, command centers and training camps, the military said. Militants have fired hundreds of rockets into Israel over the past month, including about 100 launched today, the military said.