Israel sent ground forces into the Gaza Strip in a military offensive aimed at stopping the barrage of missiles fired by Hamas and other Palestinian militants after a short-lived cease-fire collapsed earlier in the day.
The movement of troops and tanks into the Hamas-controlled coastal enclave, accompanied by heavy artillery shelling, marked the first significant Israeli ground operation in Gaza since 2009. It follows intensified aerial attacks in which more than 200 Gaza residents were killed. Palestinians launched some 1,250 rockets into Israel, killing one, with many intercepted by Israeli missile defenses.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a text message at 10:36 p.m. local time that he’d instructed the Israel Defense Forces to begin a ground operation to “destroy the terror tunnels dug from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory,” He said the goal is “restoring quiet to the citizens of Israel for an extended period, with significant damage to the infrastructure of Hamas and other terriorist organizations.”
Israel has clashed with Gaza militants repeatedly since ending a 38-year occupation in 2005. The latest violence flared after the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers last month. Israel arrested hundreds of Hamas members and blamed the group for the crime, which was followed by the suspected revenge killing of a Palestinian youth. Israel, the U.S. and European Union label Hamas a terrorist group.
The Hamas armed wing, known as the Izadeen al-Qassam Brigades, sent out its own text message saying: “We have been eagerly awaiting this ground operation to teach the Israelis a lesson.”
The brief cease-fire this morning was initiated by the UN and came after four boys aged between eight and 11 years old were killed by Israeli fire on a Gaza beach yesterday, according to Gaza Health Ministry official Ashraf al-Qedra. Israel’s military said the deaths appeared to be the “tragic outcome” of a strike targeting Hamas militants.
The truce was broken by a further exchange of rockets and missiles, with three more youngsters subsequently killed by Israeli shelling today, al-Qedra said.
Israel, which called up 48,000 reserve troops before the invasion, will mobilize more soldiers and the operation is not time-bound, said military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner
Shares of Israeli companies listed in the U.S. declined to the lowest level in a week after the ground offensive was announced. The Bloomberg Israel-US Equity index fell 1 percent to 116.78 in New York, led by Mellanox Technologies Ltd., which tumbled 3.5 percent after reaching a three-month high yesterday.
The Israeli shekel weakened 0.4 percent to 3.4275 per dollar, the sharpest decline since May 20. The Tel Aviv Stock Exchange was closed hours before the troops moved across the border.
Egyptian efforts to broker a cease-fire earlier this week were rejected by Hamas after Netanyahu’s inner security cabinet voted to accept the proposal. The Egyptian proposal called for separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian delegations in Cairo and the opening of Gaza’s border crossings for both people and goods “once the security situation becomes stable on the ground.”
Earlier in the day, Israel foiled an attempt by 13 Gaza militants to cross the border into Israeli territory through a tunnel, military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner said in a briefing today. Israeli aircraft fired at the group, killing at least one of the fighters, while the others returned to Gaza using the tunnel, he said.
The discovery of the Hamas tunneling operations into Israel drove Netanyahu’s resolve to take action today, said Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center, a Washington policy group and former U.S. mediator in Middle East peace efforts.
“There’s been no end to this missile fire for days, if not weeks, and the tunnel structure drove home the point that if you want to deal Hamas a fundamental blow, you have to have boots on the ground,” Miller said. “The reality is that the Israelis have been signaling this the last several days. There’s no way this Israeli government could continue to exist in a situation of such uncertainty,” with rockets constantly landing inside Israel, Miller said.