GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli ground troops and tanks cut swaths through the Gaza Strip early Sunday, bisecting the coastal territory and surrounding its biggest city as the new phase of a devastating offensive against Hamas gained momentum.
Thousands of soldiers in three brigade-size formations pushed into Gaza after nightfall Saturday, beginning a long-awaited ground offensive after a week of intense aerial bombardment. Black smoke billowed over Gaza City at first light and bursts of machine gun fire rang out.
TV footage showed Israeli troops with night-vision goggles and camouflage face paint marching in single file. Artillery barrages preceded their advance, and they moved through fields and orchards following bomb-sniffing dogs ensuring their routes had not been booby-trapped.
The military said troops killed or wounded dozens of militant fighters. Palestinian medics and doctors said 23 Palestinians have been killed — three Hamas fighters and the rest civilians. Many of the casualties were in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya, the scene of some of the heaviest fighting, the said.
Army ambulances were seen bringing Israeli wounded to a hospital in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba. The military reported 30 Israeli troops were wounded, two seriously, in the opening hours of the offensive.
In his first public comments since the ground operation was launched, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday that the invasion was unavoidable and that his government exhausted all other options before approving the operation.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak predicted a long and difficult campaign in Gaza, a densely populated territory of 1.4 million where militants operate and easily hide among the crowded urban landscape.
Hamas threatened to turn Gaza into a “graveyard” for Israeli forces.
“You entered like rats,” Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan told Israeli soldiers in a statement on Hamas’ Al Aqsa TV. “Gaza will be a graveyard for you, God willing.”
The ground operation is the second phase in an offensive that began as a weeklong aerial onslaught aimed at halting Hamas rocket fire that has reached deeper and deeper into Israel, threatening major cities and one-eighth of Israel’s population. Palestinian officials say nearly 480 people, including dozens of civilians, were killed in the air offensive.
Rocket fire has persisted, however, and several rockets fell in Israel on Sunday morning, causing no casualties. In much of southern Israel school has been canceled and life has been largely paralyzed.
While the air offensive presented little risk for Israel’s army, sending in ground troops is a much more dangerous proposition. Hamas is believed to have some 20,000 gunman who know the dense urban landscape intimately. For months, Israeli leaders had resisted a ground invasion, fearing heavy casualties.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he decided that the government had no more choice.
“I want to be able to go to the Israeli public and all the mothers and say, ‘We did everything in a responsible manner,'” Olmert said in a statement released by his office. “In the end, we reached the moment where I had to decide to send out soldiers.”
He stressed the campaign’s objective is to restore quiet to Israel’s south, not to topple Hamas or reoccupy Gaza. Israel considers Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since June 2007 and is sworn to Israel’s destruction, a terrorist group.
Israel has launched at least two other large ground offensives in Gaza since withdrawing its troops from the area in 2005. But the size of this latest operation dwarfs those, with at least three times the firepower.
Israel also has called up tens of thousands of reserve soldiers, which defense officials said could enable a far broader ground offensive as the operation’s third phase. The troops could also be used in the event Palestinian militants in the West Bank or Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon decide to launch attacks. Hezbollah opened a war against Israel in 2006 when it was in the midst of a large operation in Gaza.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the military’s preparations are classified.
An armored force south of Gaza City penetrated as deep as the abandoned settlement of Netzarim, which Israel left along with other Israeli communities when it pulled out of Gaza in 2005, both military officials and Palestinian witnesses said.
That move effectively cut off Gaza City, the territory’s largest population center with about 400,000 people, from the rest of Gaza to the south.
The offensive focused on northern Gaza, where most of the rockets are fired into Israel, but at least one incursion was reported in the southern part of the strip. Hamas uses smuggling tunnels along the southern border with Egypt to bring in weapons.
Warplanes struck about four dozen targets overnight, including tunnels, weapons storage facilities, areas used to launch mortars and squads of Hamas fighters, the military said.
Gunboats backed up the ground forces, attacking Hamas intelligence headquarters in Gaza City, rocket-launching areas and positions of Hamas marine forces.
Hamas was responding with mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades. Field commanders communicated over walkie talkie, updating gunmen on the location of Israeli forces. Commanders told gunmen in the streets not to gather in big groups and not to use cell phones. Hamas’ TV and radio stations, broadcasting from secret locations after their offices were destroyed, remained on the air, broadcasting live coverage.
Ground forces had not entered major Gaza towns and cities by early Sunday morning, instead fighting in rural communities and open areas militants often use to launch rockets and mortar rounds. Militants also fire from heavily populated neighborhoods.
Residents of the small northern Gaza community of al-Attatra said soldiers moved from house to house by blowing holes through walls. Most of the houses were unoccupied, their residents already having fled.
Israel launched the air campaign against Gaza on Dec. 27. Gaza health officials say more than 480 Palestinians were killed in the first eight days of the operation. The breakdown of combatants and civilians remains unclear, but the U.N. says at least 100 civilians were killed in the initial, aerial phase of the war.
Hundreds of rockets have hit Israel so far, and four Israelis have been killed.
The decision to send ground troops into Gaza was taken after Hamas kept up its rocket fire despite the aerial assault, government officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because discussions leading up to wartime decisions are confidential.
The ballooning death toll in Gaza — along with concerns of a looming humanitarian crisis — has aroused mounting world outrage, as evidenced by protests that drew tens of thousands of demonstrators in European capitals on Saturday.
“There is a humanitarian crisis. It’s impossible to say how many innocent women, innocent children and innocent babies are being caught up in this conflict, who are being maimed and killed,” said Chris Gunness, a United Nations spokesman. “This offensive must stop.”
Denunciations also came from the French government, which unsuccessfully proposed a two-day truce earlier this week, and from Egypt, which brokered the six-month truce whose breakdown preceded the Israeli offensive.
But the U.S. has put the blame squarely on Hamas. White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said U.S. officials have been in regular contact with the Israelis as well as officials from countries in the region and Europe.
“We continue to make clear to them our concerns for civilians, as well as the humanitarian situation,” he said.
At an emergency consultation of the U.N. Security Council on Saturday night, the U.S. blocked approval of a statement demanded by Arab countries that would have called for an immediate cease-fire. U.S. deputy ambassador Alejandro Wolff said the U.S. believed that such a statement “would not be adhered to and would have no underpinning for success, (and) would not do credit to the council.”
Hamas began to emerge as Gaza’s main power broker when it won Palestinian parliamentary elections three years ago. It has ruled the impoverished territory since seizing control from forces loyal to moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in June 2007.