GAZA CITY – Israeli troops backed by tanks and warplanes pushed deeper into Gaza on Friday in an operation to halt rocket fire and destroy tunnels that Hamas said is doomed to fail.
The death toll among Palestinians soared to 260 as the large-scale Israeli offensive entered its 11th day, with the army bombarding Gaza by air and sea as well as from tanks massed along the border.
Israel reported its first combat death since its troops went in, while a five-month-old baby was among the 19 Palestinians reported killed on Friday. The Jewish state said it was pressing ahead with the operation to destroy a network of tunnels that riddle the Gaza strip, used for assembling rockets and staging cross border attacks.
Before the ground offensive was launched, the army said it had foiled a subterranean raid by Gaza militants into southern Israel. About 13 militants emerged from a tunnel under the Gaza border, and were headed towards Sufa kibbutz, a small community just over a kilometre away, when they were spotted, it said.
Warplanes killed at least one of the attackers, and rest ran back to the tunnel. As the incursion began late Thursday, rockets lit up the sky, and the force of the shelling shook violently a seafront hotel in Gaza City housing scores of journalists.
The assault followed a brief humanitarian truce and urgent diplomatic appeals that Israel redouble its efforts to avoid harm to civilians. US Secretary of State John Kerry urged Israel to limit collateral damage in Gaza and be precise in its ground assault on the enclave.
Kerry emphasised in a telephone call to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu the need to avoid further escalation and to restore the 2012 ceasefire as soon as possible, said the State Department. Hamas that controls Gaza said the ground operation was destined to fail.
"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 said 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 movement is ready for the confrontation.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said that Israel must stop its ground operation, warning it would lead to more bloodshed and complicate efforts to end the conflict in the enclave. 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 striking a significant blow to Hamas's 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. Israel launched Operation Protective Edge on July 8 to stamp out rocket fire from Gaza, pounding the coastal enclave from both the air and the sea.