Under cover of naval, air and artillery strikes, thousands of Israeli forces marched into the Gaza Strip on Thursday after Palestinian rocket fire at Israel continued despite attempts at a United Nations-brokered cease fire to the 10-day conflict.
The advance followed repeated warnings from Jerusalem that it would invade if Palestinian rockets did not cease.
At 3:14 p.m. EDT, the office of the Israeli Defense Force spokesman tweeted, “BREAKING NEWS: A large IDF force has just launched a ground operation in the Gaza Strip. A new phase of Operation Protective Edge has begun.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said the attacks targeted tunnels used by terrorists to enter Israel from Gaza and other Hamas locations, The Jerusalem Post reported.
The warring sides supposedly were progressing with talks in Egypt on Wednesday, when former President Mahmoud Abbas, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met.
In what has become a battle of real time public relations messaging between Israel and Palestinians as much as actual fighting, the IDF is live-tweeting the fighting, arguing its attacks are defensive operations against unceasing terrorist attacks from Gaza. The military has been promoting its humanitarian efforts for days, reporting ton-for-ton how much aid Israel is letting into Gaza. IDF officials have warned Gaza residents to take cover before Israeli strikes, and directed residents where to take shelter to be safe from Thursday’s campaign.
In Gaza, Palestinian leaders have argued that Israel has launched a disproportionate military operation against its population, trapping civilians in the territory without electricity or humanitarian supplies, labeling all fighters as terrorists. Globally, Palestinian supporters have flooded Twitter with verbal attacks on Israel using the hashtag #GazaUnderAttack.
But Israel argues Hamas is creating human shields by hiding in schools, mosques and hospitals. The United Nations recently found rockets in an abandoned school, but said it was the first known case.
“We know that Hamas terrorists are operating underground, and that’s where we will meet them,” tweeted the IDF spokesman’s office on Thursday. “We have hit Hamas hard, and we will continue to hit Hamas hard.”
“I think invasion is the wrong word, I think we’re talking about a ground incursion at the moment” said Mark Regev, spokesman for Netanyahu, on CNN. “We will do what needs to be done to stop that hostile fire from Gaza into Israel.”
On Thursday, an Israeli military spokesman said more Israelis would be called up to military service in addition to the 50,000 mobilized so far. Israel would focus on degrading Hamas’s infrastructure and capabilities, but not attempt to expel their rule of the territory, according to The New York Times.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby told Defense One not to expect Defense Department officials to comment on the Israeli invasion on Thursday, pointing to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s comments last week at the Pentagon. Hagel said that Israel had a right to defend itself and called on all sides to avoid escalating the conflict, but offered no support for the perspective of Palestinians who argue they are under siege by Israel, trapped in the strip and unable to escape the attack.
Nearly 1,500 rockets have been “launched at Israel,” and 1,093 of them hit the country, the IDF said. In return, Israel has struck more than 1,600 targets, The Times reported.
“You’ve got to understand, and I think people don’t get this abroad—the people of those border communities, they have suffered from rockets from Gaza, day in, day out. Not for days, not for weeks but for years,” Kirby said. “I think they’re finally seeing the Israeli army moving in—I think, I can understand, from their point of view, that they will feel a certain level of satisfaction that finally ground forces are going there to try to get rid of that terrorist threat.”