Israeli Forces Enter Gaza Strip

Assault on Gaza Strip continues as rockets fall on southern Israel.
By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 4, 2009

JERUSALEM, Jan. 3 -- Israel launched a major ground invasion of the Gaza Strip on Saturday night, moving in tanks, infantry and artillery units after eight days of relentless air attacks failed to halt Hamas rocket fire from the narrow coastal territory.

Israeli officials indicated that the incursion would be lengthy but said they have no intention of reoccupying the densely populated strip more than three years after withdrawing troops and settlers. Less clear is whether Israel intends to use the ground assault to try to topple Hamas, which has been in control of Gaza for 18 months.

Hamas officials called on Palestinians to rise up against Israel with suicide attacks and vowed to make Gaza "a graveyard" for Israeli soldiers.

The invasion came under cover of darkness around 8 p.m., after electricity was cut to much of the strip. Teams of soldiers with night-vision goggles advanced on foot, while others traveled in tanks and armored personnel carriers. The only light came from Israeli flares that periodically illuminated the sky, and from the towers of bright orange flame that followed missile strikes, revealing scenes of devastation on the ground.

Preliminary reports from witnesses in the northern part of Gaza indicated that there had been heavy gun battles between soldiers and Hamas fighters. At least seven Palestinians were killed in the fighting, bringing the Palestinian death toll to at least 460, with more than 2,000 wounded, according to Palestinian medical officials. The United Nations has said that about a quarter of those killed before Saturday were civilians.

Three Israeli civilians and a soldier have been killed since the air operation was launched. There was no immediate word that any soldiers had been killed in the first hours of the ground assault.

"This will not be easy or short. But we are determined," Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said at a news conference late Saturday.

Tens of thousands of military reservists were called up soon after the invasion was launched.

Barak said that Israel had already "dealt an unprecedented heavy blow against Hamas." But with the organization continuing to fire rockets, the ground operation was needed to "get Hamas to stop its hostile activities against Israel."

Mark Regev, spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said the operation would end "when Israel understands that the civilian population in the south of the country will no longer be on the receiving end of Hamas rockets. We have not articulated a wider aim."

But with a little more than a month until Israel holds elections, pressure has been building for the government to use this operation not just to weaken Hamas, but also to try to deal it a death blow.

Hamas and its allies in Gaza fired about 40 rockets into Israel on Saturday, hitting three homes. There were no major injuries.

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