Two Palestinians, including a three-month-old baby, have already been killed, Palestinian medical sources told AFP.
According to Middle East Eye sources on the ground, Israeli warships have also intensified their shelling while Israeli tanks are believed to have entered Gaza and begun shelling the north and south of the country, including the Rafah crossing into Egypt. There have also been as yet unconfirmed reports of an incursion from the east.
Al-Wafah hospital in Gaza City was also shelled, although International Solidarity sources who had human shields in the vicinity told the Middle East Eye that none of the patients were hurt but that a few staff members were slightly injured.
The Israeli military has informed many foreign journalists to evacuate hotels close to the beach, with the military asking the government to approve the deployment of 18,000 additional reservists. This would bring the number of Israeli troops on the border up to almost 60,000.
According to Israeli daily Haaretz, Chief of Staff Lieut. Gen. Benny Gantz said that the army “will launch a joint ground-aerial assault, using full force. We’ll continue to expand the fire all over the Gaza Strip.”
Hamas responded by stating that the Israeli action was “foolish” and a “dangerous step”.
“The occupation will pay a heavy price for it,” the group added.
News of the ground offensive was broken by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, which issued a statement shortly before 11pm local time (21.00 GMT).
“The prime minister and the defence minister have ordered the [Israeli military] to begin a ground operation in order to damage the underground tunnel terrors constructed in Gaza leading into Israeli territory,” said the statement.
“The prime minister and the defence minister have ordered the (Israeli military) to make preparations for expanding the ground operation. The order to act tonight has been approved by the security cabinet.”
The escalation comes on the back of a temporary UN-brokered humanitarian five-hour ceasefire, which came into effect this morning.
“Operation Protective Edge will continue until it achieves its objective – to restore quiet and safety to Israelis for a long time to come, while significantly harming the infrastructure of Hamas and other terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip,” Netanyahu’s office said in the statement.
After Israel resumed its bombardment of the Gaza Strip and before the ground offensive was launched, 18 Palestinians including six children, were killed.
This included three children from the same family who were killed while playing on the roof of their house in the Sabra neighbourhood, southwest of Gaza City.
Al Jazeera reporter, Tamir Mishal, said that after the ceasefire, Israel conducted five major aerial strikes, while Palestinians responded by firing many rockets. Shortly before the announcement of the ground operation, Egypt sharply criticised Hamas, saying the group could have saved dozens of lives had it accepted a Cairo-mediated truce. Hamas, however, had rejected the Egyptian proposed ceasefire, saying that it was not compelled to abide by a ceasefire on which it was not consulted.
Hamas officials repeatedly said that they first heard of the ceasefire through international media outlets. While the group was initially said to be considering the deal, it quickly spurned the deal which was scheduled to start on Tuesday.
“Had Hamas accepted the Egyptian proposal, it could have saved the lives of at least 40 Palestinians,” Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said.
Since Operation Protective Edge was launched last Monday, more than 240 people have been killed in Gaza and 1,700 wounded.
(Middle East Eye – www.middleeasteye.net)