TEL AVIV — Even as Israel and Hamas agreed to pause hostilities briefly Thursday at the request of the United Nations, a senior Israeli military official said that his government was increasingly likely to order a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip that it had hoped to avoid.
Though Israel initially set limited goals of halting the rocket assaults against it and degrading Hamas, the Islamist movement that dominates Gaza, the group’s tenacity and surprisingly deep arsenal have to led to widespread calls to expand the mission. The military official said that only “boots on the ground” could eradicate terrorism from Gaza and indicated that Israel was even considering a long-term reoccupation of the coastal territory.
But with the Palestinian death toll reaching 214 on Wednesday, Israel and the Gaza militants agreed to end the violence for five hours Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. For Israel, it was a move that might help mitigate international criticism of rising civilian casualties, and that carried little cost: The military warned that if Hamas or other groups “exploited” the “humanitarian window” to attack Israel, it would “respond firmly and decisively.”
Hours earlier, Israel had called up 8,000 reservists in addition to the 42,000 troops already mobilized. With no progress reported from Cairo, where President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority had gone to discuss terms to end the fighting, Israel’s airstrikes intensified despite what the military official acknowledged were diminishing returns.
“Every day that passes makes the possibility more evident,” the military official said of a ground campaign.
The official, who has been briefing Israeli ministers responsible for strategic decisions and spoke on condition of anonymity under military protocol, said his assessment was based on “the signals I get” and that the likelihood of an invasion was “very high.”
“We can hurt them very hard from the air but not get rid of them,” he told a handful of international journalists in a briefing at the military’s Tel Aviv headquarters.
An Israeli takeover of Gaza would not be “a huge challenge,” he said, estimating that it would take “a matter of days or weeks.” But he added that preventing a more dangerous deterioration in the territory would require a presence “of many months.”
The stark assessment came as Israel bombed scores of targets, many of them homes in northern Gaza, after warning 100,000 residents via leaflets, text messages, and automated telephone calls to evacuate by 8 a.m. Palestinian health officials said that more than 1,500 people had been injured since the Israeli operation began July 8, and that several young children, including four boys on a beach, had been killed Wednesday in separate strikes.
The lone Israeli casualty, a man killed by a mortar round as he distributed food to soldiers Tuesday near the Erez crossing into Gaza, was eulogized at his funeral by Israel’s president-elect, Reuven Rivlin.
In Washington, President Obama called for both sides to exercise restraint, and Secretary of State John Kerry continued making phone calls to the region.
“The Israeli people and the Palestinian people don’t want to live like this,” Obama told reporters. “We will use all of our diplomatic resources and relationships to support efforts of closing a deal on a cease-fire.”
Obama reiterated his support for Israel while expressing sorrow over civilian casualties.
“Israel has a right to defend itself from rocket attacks,” he said. “But over the past two weeks, we’ve all been heartbroken by the violence, especially the death and injury of so many innocent civilians in Gaza.”