Israel orders Gaza ground offensive
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the military operation.
JERUSALEM/GAZA - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday instructed the military to begin a ground offensive in Gaza, an official statement from his office said.
Reuters witnesses and Gaza residents reported heavy artillery and naval shelling and helicopter fire along the Gaza border.
"The prime minister and defence minister have instructed the Israel Defence Force (IDF) to begin a ground operation tonight in order to hit the terror tunnels from Gaza into Israel," the statement said.
Israel and Palestinian militants in the densely populated enclave have been fighting a cross border war for 10 days.
The Israeli military says Gaza militants have fired more than 1,300 rockets into Israel. Palestinian health officials say 233 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli air and naval strikes. One Israeli civilian has been killed by fire from Gaza.
A statement from the Israeli military said the operation will include "infantry, armoured corps, engineer corps, artillery and intelligence combined with aerial and naval support."
Before dawn on Thursday, about a dozen Palestinian fighters tunnelled under the border, emerging near an Israeli community. At least one was killed when Israeli aircraft bombed the group, the military said.
On Thursday night, loud thuds and flashes of orange light lit the sky in the eastern Gaza strip as Israeli gunboats fired shells and tracer fire, while artillery and helicopters fired over the border, Reuters witnesses on both sides of the border said.
Gaza residents and medical officials reported heavy shelling along the eastern borders from the southern town of Rafah up to the north of the enclave.
Shells landed by the al-Wafa rehabilitation hospital east of Shejaia, an eastern suburb of Gaza. "We were not able to evacuate all the patients, the staff can barely evacuate themselves at this point. It's a desperate situation," Basman Alashi, head of the hospital, told Reuters.
"The hospital has been hit many times," he said.
Sirens had sounded in southern Israel earlier in the day at the end of the ceasefire requested by the United Nations, giving way to renewed Palestinian rocket salvoes and Israeli bombing.
Naftali Bennett, Israel's hawkish economy minister and a member of the decision-making security cabinet, said earlier in the day that time was running out for Hamas, the Islamist group dominant in Gaza.
"We are moving from Iron Dome to an iron fist," Bennett said, referring to an anti-missile system that has intercepted many of the rockets in 10 days of warfare.
The military said rockets headed towards Tel Aviv, the southern city of Beersheba and Ashkelon. There were no reports of casualties or damage.
Israeli aircraft bombed a house in Gaza City, killing three children, another three youngsters and three other people died in separate attacks, said Ashraf Al-Qidra, the Gaza health ministry said.
The Israeli security cabinet was due to meet on Friday, an Israeli official said.