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.
"Gaza will not be paved with flowers for you; it will be paved with fire and hell," Hamas warned after the invasion began.
The ground assault was likely to add a new level of hardship to a territory that has, for the past week, been deep in crisis. Even before the invasion, Gazans were suffering from shortages of electricity, water, cooking gas and other basic supplies.
"It's terrifying, to say the least," Eyad Sarraj, a psychiatrist who heads the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, said as bombs fell outside his window. "We're just trying to cope and keep the family secure."
In just over a week, Israel had attacked about 800 targets in Gaza. Military officials had defined any Hamas-affiliated target as legitimate, and fighter jets had leveled police stations, government offices, homes of Hamas leaders, smugglers' tunnels and mosques that were allegedly being used to store weapons.
Although it is not uncommon for the Israeli military to move ground forces into Gaza for quick, targeted operations, military officials said this operation would have much more expansive goals. In a statement, the military said the invasion marks the second stage of Israel's campaign to destroy Hamas's armed infrastructure.
The military said it also planned to take control of some areas used by Hamas to launch rockets. It was unclear how long Israel intended to hold those areas or how deep into Gaza the forces planned to move.
By late Saturday, ground forces were reported to be fanned out north and east of Gaza City, including in Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya. They had not entered the Jabalya refugee camp, one of the most densely packed parts of the strip and a haven for Hamas.
The ground operation came after Israel intensified its assault earlier in the evening, firing artillery shells for the first time and killing at least 13 people in an attack on a mosque where the Israeli military said weapons were being stored. Also Saturday, an Israeli airstrike killed a senior Hamas commander, the second to die in the operation.
Television footage showed chaotic scenes at hospitals, with doctors struggling to keep up as paramedics brought in bloodied victims, many of them children. Grief-stricken relatives wailed and threw their hands to the sky as ambulances continued to arrive.
But the attacks that led to those scenes were a mere prelude to the ground assault. Military officials said the operation could take days or longer. Israel has not allowed foreign journalists to enter Gaza since the airstrikes began Dec. 27.
Near sundown, Israel dropped leaflets on northern Gaza warning residents to evacuate their homes, as witnesses reported heavy movement of troops and tanks massed on the border. The leaflets read: "Area resident, as a result of the acts undertaken by terror activists in your area against Israel, the IDF is forced to respond immediately and operate in this area. For your own safety, you are asked to leave the area immediately."
It was unclear where the residents were supposed to go; Gaza is tiny, and no part of the strip, home to 1.5 million people, has been spared from attack. Border crossings have been sealed for everyone except 220 foreigners and a small number of Palestinians in need of immediate medical help.
The escalation of the Israeli offensive came as international pressure continued to build on Israel to find a diplomatic solution.
France on Saturday condemned the ground offensive and called on Hamas to stop its rocket fire. The United States has also pushed for a truce but has said that Hamas must stop firing rockets before Israel should be expected to halt its offensive. The United States categorizes Hamas as a terrorist organization.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called Olmert and expressed "extreme concern and disappointment," the United Nations said.
Libya introduced a draft press statement that expressed "serious concern" at the Israeli ground offensive and called for an immediate halt to all violence. But a State Department spokesman said the United States would not support a U.N. Security Council decision that preserved the "status quo" and allowed the continuation of Palestinian rocket attacks against Israel. After 3 1/2 hours of negotiations, the council broke off without an agreement.
The U.N. General Assembly president, Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, characterized Israel's military operation as a "monstrosity." In a rare appearance in the Security Council by a sitting General Assembly president, d'Escoto said he wanted to monitor whether the General Assembly would need to address the worsening violence. He also criticized the United States for protecting Israel over the years from meeting its obligations under various U.N. resolutions to end its occupation of Palestinian lands.
Protests were held worldwide Saturday, with demonstrators calling for Israel to stand down. In Tel Aviv, thousands of people gathered in Rabin Square to demand an end to the operation.
Still, polls show that a large majority of Israelis surveyed have supported the offensive in Gaza, although fewer have been sure about the wisdom of going into the territory on the ground.
Hamas, which won Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, has had sole control of Gaza since June 2007, when it routed forces loyal to the rival Fatah party. Israel pulled its troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005 but has continued to conduct regular raids on targets in the territory in a bid to end rocket fire emanating from the strip. Hamas and its allies have fired thousands of rockets from southern Israel in recent years.
A six-month cease-fire between Hamas and Israel expired Dec. 19, with mutual recrimination; Hamas has said Israel went back on a pledge to open the border crossings, and Israel accused Hamas of failing to stop the rocket attacks.
Analysts said they expect that the ground portion of the military campaign could be even bloodier than the air campaign, with the stakes higher as well.
"Both of them will pay the price for it," said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, head of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs. "And both will claim victory through it."
Correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan, special correspondents Reyham Abdel Kareem in Gaza City and Samuel Sockol in Tel Aviv and Ashkelon, and staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.