JERUSALEM: Israeli tanks and troops swept across the border into Gaza on Saturday night, opening a ground war against the militant group Hamas after a week of intense airstrikes.
The Israeli military said in a statement that the objective of the ground campaign was “to destroy the terrorist infrastructure of Hamas,” the militant Islamic group that controls the area, “while taking control of some of the rocket launching sites” that Hamas uses to fire at southern Israel.
“This will not be short. this will not be easy. I do not wish to delude anyone,” Israel’s military minister, Ehud Barak, said in a televised statement, adding that the coming days will be difficult for the residents of southern Israel.
The United Nations Security Council called a special meeting for 7 p.m. Saturday in New York to discuss the Middle East crisis.
The ground campaign brought new risks and the prospect of significantly higher casualties on both sides in a conflict that, even before the ground war started, had already taken the lives of more than 430 Palestinians and four Israelis.
While a ground campaign in densely populated Gaza is likely to increase the civilian death toll there, the Israeli Army also faces new threats. Hamas has had 18 months since Israel withdrew from the territory to smuggle in more lethal weapons against tanks and troops. Its more sophisticated arsenal has been on display over the last weeks, as it has launched scores of longer range rockets from Gaza into Israeli cities.
Israeli officials said they want to strike a hard blow against Hamas, improve Israeli deterrence and significantly change the security situation in southern Israel, where residents have been plagued by rocket fire out of Gaza for years.
The ground operation began after a week of intensive attacks by Israeli air and naval forces on Hamas security installations, weapons stores and symbols of government.
Israel unilaterally withdrew its forces from the Gaza Strip and evacuated all the Jewish settlements there in 2005, but it has since carried out numerous incursions of different scales. A 48-hour raid in March 2008 killed nearly 100 Palestinians. Israeli officials said at the time that the aim was to show Hamas the cost of its continuing rocket fire.
Officials have stated repeatedly that the aim is not to fully reoccupy Gaza. But it was clear that the military was leaving the door open for a long-term operation; a spokesman said Saturday that the ground push “will continue on the basis of ongoing situational assessments.” And it remained an open question whether Israel would try to eliminate the Hamas government.
On Saturday night, the Israeli prime minister’s office reported that a call up of thousands of army reserve troops, approved earlier, had begun.
“This has always been a stage-by-stage process,” said Shlomo Dror, a Defense Ministry spokesman, in a telephone interview as the ground campaign was getting under way. “Hamas can stop it whenever it wants,” by stopping its rocket fire, Dror said.
The exact number of troops entering Gaza was not being publicized, but the military said the ground operation involved “large numbers” of forces including infantry, tanks, engineering and artillery corps.
An Egyptian-brokered truce between Israel and Hamas, which took effect last June, began to break down in November, and Hamas declared it over on Dec. 19. Since then, rocket fire out of Gaza has intensified.
Israeli troops and tanks have been amassed along the border with Gaza for days, waiting for the order to go in. But Israeli officials have long been reluctant to authorize a major ground campaign in Gaza, predicting heavy losses on both sides.
Israeli warplanes carried out dozens of strikes in Gaza throughout the day on Saturday, the eighth day of the Israeli offensive against Hamas.
Many of the Israeli bombings were aimed at open areas around Beit Hanoun and the main route connecting the north and south of Gaza, most likely to clear those areas of mines and tunnels and to hamper movement in order to pave the way for Israeli ground forces.
On Saturday afternoon, Israeli artillery started shelling open areas in the northern Gaza Strip for the first time in the current campaign.
The Israeli army also dropped thousands of leaflets into some residential districts warning inhabitants to evacuate their homes. Because of “the activity of terrorist groups,” the leaflets said in Arabic, the army “is obliged to respond quickly and work from inside your residential area.”
Many residents of one apartment block in Gaza City said they had nowhere else to go and would stay in their homes.
A mosque in northern Gaza was hit on Saturday during evening prayer time in what witnesses said was an Israeli air strike.
At least 11 worshipers were killed and about 30 wounded, according to Palestinian hospital officials. The Israeli military had no immediate comment.
The air force has struck several mosques in the past week, with the military saying they served as Hamas bases and weapons stores.
Israel began its offensive against Hamas on Dec. 27, and Hamas has responded by firing longer-range rockets deeper into Israel.
On Saturday, a rocket hit an apartment building in the major port city of Ashdod, about 20 miles north of Gaza, lightly wounding two Israelis. Other rockets landed in the coastal city of Ashkelon and in the Negev town of Netivot.
The latest round of rocket fire has demonstrated the extent to which Hamas has been able to upgrade its arsenal with weapons parts smuggled into Gaza since it seized control of the territory 18 months ago, according to American and Israeli officials. Compared with the rockets it had used in the past, the latest batch has been more accurate and have flown farther — close to two dozen miles, enough to reach cities in southern Israel.
President George W. Bush, in his weekly radio address to the nation on Saturday, said Hamas had instigated the latest violence. He described the rocket barrages from Gaza “that deliberately targeted innocent Israelis” as “an act of terror that is opposed by the legitimate leader of the Palestinian people, President Abbas.” Mahmoud Abbas is president of the Palestinian Authority, based in the West Bank.
Bush, expressing deep concern about the humanitarian situation facing the people of Gaza, added that the United States was “leading diplomatic efforts to achieve a meaningful cease-fire that is fully respected.” Such a truce, he said, will require monitoring mechanisms to help ensure that the smuggling of weapons into Gaza ends.
President-elect Barack Obama continued to stay at arms length. “The president-elect is closely monitoring global events, including the situation in Gaza,” said Brooke Anderson, his chief national security spokeswoman. “There is one president at a time, and we intend to respect that.”
Before the ground war began, hospital officials in Gaza City put the first week’s Palestinian death toll at more than 430, including 26 women and 74 children.
Three Israeli civilians and one soldier have been killed in the past week by rocket attacks from Gaza.
The Israeli military said Saturday evening that the air force had struck about 40 Hamas targets during the day, including weapons storage facilities, smuggling tunnels, rocket launchers and launching sites. Palestinians said the airstrikes also hit the American International School, a private institution in northern Gaza, killing a school guard.
Israel has also been firing on the homes of leaders of the Hamas military wing, and on Saturday struck a vehicle in Khan Yunis carrying Mohammed Maaruf, whom the military described as an officer in the Hamas ground forces. Another strike killed Mohammad al-Jammal, 40, who was said in Gaza to be a Hamas military commander, according to Agence France-Presse. Israel said he was responsible for the entire rocket-launching operation in all of Gaza City.
But in Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, most of the wounded being brought in on Saturday seemed to be civilians.
Salah Abu Rafia, 38, was accompanying wounded relatives, including his 10-year-old son, Zeid. Abu Rafia said that an F-16 fired missiles around his house in the Zeitoun neighborhood, west of Gaza City, while the family was sitting outside. He said that Hamas fighters had been in the area but that he had been afraid to tell them to go away. They disappeared as soon as they heard the planes, he said, escaping without injury.
“We are the ones paying the price,” Abu Rafia said.
An Israeli ground operation could draw out the Hamas militants.
The exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashal, speaking from Damascus, Syria, warned that any ground assault would lead Israel to “a black destiny of dead and wounded,” according to The Associated Press.
Hamas leaders in Gaza were in hiding, but a Hamas spokesman said on Saturday night that the “moment of decision has arrived.”
Isabel Kershner reported from Jerusalem, and Taghreed El-Khodary from Gaza.