JERUSALEM — Even as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday that he had ordered Israel’s military to “prepare for the possibility of widening, significantly,” its ground offensive in the Gaza Strip, troops operated mainly near Gaza’s borders in what Israeli officials emphasized was a modest mission targeting tunnels into their territory.
Netanyahu, who acknowledged that “there is no guarantee of 100 percent success,” also offered condolences to the family of an Israeli soldier killed in the first hours of the ground offensive. And a Hamas-run radio station reported that three siblings had been killed in the artillery shelling of an apartment building in northern Gaza around noon Friday.
The recent fighting brought the Palestinian death toll to above 260, with more than 20 killed since the ground offensive began. Palestinian health officials have said that some 2,000 others have been injured. The Israeli military identified the soldier as Staff Sgt. Eitan Barak, 20, from Herzliya.
Barak was the second Israeli casualty of the conflict that began July 8; a 37-year-old civilian was killed by mortar shells from Gaza as he distributed food to soldiers massed near the border Tuesday night. Israeli news outlets reported that the soldier was shot near Beit Hanoun, in northeast Gaza, possibly from friendly fire, though a Twitter post from the army said he was “fighting Hamas terrorists.” He was posthumously promoted to staff sergeant from sergeant.
Al Aksa radio station, which is run by Hamas, reported that three children of Ismail Abu Musalam — Walaa, 12, Mohammed, 13, and Ahmed, 14 — had been killed when a shell hit their bedroom in Al Nada housing block, close to the Erez crossing from Israel. Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said on his Facebook page that Netanyahu “is killing Gaza children but he will pay the price.”
The Israeli military said that it had uncovered more than 20 “tunnel access points” in Gaza during the ground campaign’s first hours, hit more than 150 sites in the coastal territory, and killed at least 17 militants.
“We chose to go to this operation after we exhausted the other options and with the understanding that without this operation the price we pay will be much higher,” Netanyahu said in a nationally televised address shortly before noon from the military headquarters in Tel Aviv, where he had convened his top ministers. Netanyahu said he had talked to world leaders to create “the international space, something that should not be taken for granted, so we can act systematically and with power against a murderous terror organization and its partners.”
President Barack Obama said in comments from the White House that he spoke with Netanyahu on Friday and that he reaffirmed his “strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself” but also said he was “deeply concerned about the risks of further escalation and the loss of more innocent life.”
“No nation should accept rockets being fired into its borders or terrorists tunneling into its territory,” Obama told reporters, noting that a siren signaling incoming rockets over Tel Aviv sounded during his phone conversation with Netanyahu on Friday.
Photos from the field: More tunnels that we uncovered today in the southern Gaza Strip pic.twitter.com/88EdeojVNF— IDF (@IDFSpokesperson) July 18, 2014
Netanyahu’s office said in a statement that the prime minister had told the president after the siren sounded that it was “the reality in which millions of Israeli citizens have been living during the past number of days.” The Israeli leader also told Obama that Hamas was “using the residents of Gaza as human shields” and was therefore “responsible for the casualties,” according to the statement.
The U.N. Security Council scheduled an emergency session on Gaza for Friday afternoon in New York, at the request of Jordan. Turkey had also called for such a session, and its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on Friday accused Israel of “committing genocide” and said it “has never been a supporter of peace, has tyrannized and continues to tyrannize.”
Israel had earlier ordered the families of its diplomats and some staff to leave Turkey after violent protests early Friday in front of Israel’s missions in Istanbul and Ankara. Windows of the consulate office in central Istanbul were broken and graffiti was scrawled on a nearby wall reading, “You should be left without descendants, murderer Jew.” Parliamentarians from the governing Justice and Development Party joined a similar demonstration outside the Israeli Embassy in Ankara.
Electricity had been cut in most of Gaza because of downed cables that bring power from Israel, and street battles in Gaza City and in northern and southern towns were reported on social media.
Dozens of families fled intense Israeli bombings in northern Gaza on foot and on donkey carts packed with up to 10 people, including children and older adults. Explosions from airstrikes could be seen, as well as outgoing rockets or mortars. Little else moved in Gaza City, where streets were mostly deserted and shops were closed. An exception was Shifa Hospital, where casualties continued to arrive, including one body blown to pieces and a boy whose face was pockmarked by shrapnel. Many staff members at the hospital have worked nearly nonstop for 11 days. A funeral was held nearby for two people killed overnight.
Residents of northern Gaza said that Israeli tanks were not pushing deep into the territory but had remained in position on a swath of sand, and that it was relatively calm at midday after a night of shelling and machine-gun fire. Some said that they had heard tank shells and that they thought Israel might be clearing the way for further incursions later.
In the town of Khan Younis in southern Gaza, at least nine people were killed overnight, including four members of the Radwan family, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry. Residents of Al Qarara, a neighborhood in eastern Khan Younis, said bulldozers were leveling fields planted with crops near the border fence in eastern Gaza in what is known as the “buffer zone” — a strip where Israel prevented planting for years but lifted restrictions under a cease-fire agreement that ended the last Gaza battle in 2012.
Israeli airstrikes have also continued, with an F-16 hitting a villa belonging to the Khoudary family near a building housing the local offices of Al Jazeera and The Associated Press. Apache helicopters had earlier targeted an apartment in Al Jawhara tower, which damaged the office of a Palestinian production company that serves foreign news outlets.
Along the road that runs parallel to Gaza’s eastern boundary and about a mile into Israeli territory, dozens of tanks topped with Israeli flags were parked in fields, with soldiers on standby. Clouds of dust covered the road in the wake of military vehicles on the move in what had become a huge staging ground. The Israeli military has begun calling up 18,000 more reservists, adding to the 50,000 mobilized for the campaign.
Sirens signaling rocket attacks sounded all night and into the morning across Israel’s south; the army counted more than 50 rockets from the 10 p.m. start of its ground invasion Thursday until 7 a.m. Friday.
Khaled Meshal, the political leader of Hamas, the Islamist movement that dominates Gaza and has led the battle against Israel that began July 8, told Agence France-Presse from his base in Qatar on Friday that the ground operation was “bound to fail.”
“What the occupier Israel failed to achieve through its air and sea raids, it will not be able to achieve with a ground offensive,” Meshal was quoted as saying by the agency.
President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, whose meetings in Cairo on Wednesday and Thursday failed to produce a cease-fire agreement, told reporters there that the ground operation would “lead to more bloodshed and complicate efforts to end the aggression,” according to WAFA, the official Palestinian news agency. Abbas was scheduled to travel to Turkey and perhaps Qatar on Friday to continue cease-fire discussions.
The Israeli Home Front Command banned gatherings of more than 1,000 people as far north as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and in the communities close to Gaza, summer camps were canceled and groups of more than 300 were not allowed.
Men under 50 were barred from Al Aksa Mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem for Friday prayers, which are a major event, especially during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and which often bring clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces even during otherwise calm times.
In the West Bank city of Hebron, the families of the three men that the Israeli authorities have said are the prime suspects in the June 12 abduction and subsequent murder of three Israeli teenagers — a crime that Israel blamed on Hamas and that began the escalation that led to the conflict in Gaza — received notices that their homes would be demolished Friday. Israeli forces damaged the homes weeks ago.
On Thursday, three ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews, a 29-year-old with a history of psychiatric problems and two of his teenage relatives, were indicted on charges of kidnapping and killing a 16-year-old Palestinian boy in Jerusalem on July 2 in an apparent revenge attack the morning after the three Israeli teenagers’ funerals.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to Netanyahu after the ground forces moved into Gaza. Kerry urged a “precise” operation focused on the tunnels, as Netanyahu’s office and other senior Israeli leaders had indicated as the operation was announced.
“The secretary emphasized the need to avoid further escalation” and urged a cease-fire based on a proposal presented by Egypt earlier this week, according to a State Department statement. “The secretary also reiterated our concern about the safety and security of civilians on both sides and the importance of doing everything possible to prevent civilian casualties.”
The U.N. estimates that three-quarters of the Palestinians killed in the operation were not militants and that the victims include more than 50 children. Palestinian health officials have counted at least 20 minors killed in recent days: four were killed in an airstrike as they played on a Gaza City rooftop around 6 p.m. Thursday, and four others — cousins — were bombed as they kicked a ball on the beach around 4 p.m. Wednesday.
The U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said overnight that he regretted the ground offensive and urged Israel to “do more” to prevent civilian casualties, news agencies reported, while the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, called on Israel to show “utmost restraint.”
Netanyahu said Friday that Israel’s is “a moral army like no other,” and “does not aspire to hurt even one innocent person, not even one.” He blamed Hamas and other militant groups for using “their citizens as human shields,” and said he was “sorry for every mistaken strike on civilians.”
Chris Gunness of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency said on Friday that many in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis had been displaced by the violence. The agency, which serves the more than half of Gaza’s 1.7 million residents classified as Palestinian refugees, is sheltering about 22,000 Gazans in 23 spots in Gaza City and in the north of the strip, Gunness said.
In Canada, a staunch ally of Israel, Foreign Minister John Baird said the ground incursion “could have been avoided” if Hamas had accepted Egypt’s cease-fire proposal, as Israel initially did, and said the Gaza group therefore “bears responsibility for the further tragic loss of life.”
The Israeli military released footage of a captain giving his soldiers a last-minute briefing before heading into Gaza.
“I don’t think I need to explain to you why we are doing what we are doing,” he said, according to a translation posted on the Times of Israel news site. “I am confident in what we are doing, because it is our right to be free in our land. It’s not a slogan, it’s the truth.”