UPDATED: Death toll reaches 246 as Israel begins ground offensive in Gaza

AFP, Thursday 17 Jul 2014

Israel increases the draft of reserve forces to 18,000 troops; Hamas says Israel will pay a 'high price' for such ground invasion

Israeli soldiers rest atop tanks outside central Gaza Strip July 17, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

Israel launched a ground offensive in Gaza late Thursday to stamp out rocket attacks, the Israeli army and the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

"Following 10 days of Hamas attacks by land, air and sea, and after repeated rejections of offers to de-escalate the situation, the Israel Defence Forces (army) has initiated a ground operation within the Gaza Strip," the army said in a statement.

Netanyahu's office said the "prime minister and the defence minister ordered the army to begin a ground operation and enter Gaza to strike at the terrorist tunnels from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory."

A statement said the decision was "approved by the security cabinet after Israel agreed to the Egyptian ceasefire proposal, whereas Hamas rejected it and continued firing rockets at Israeli cities."

The army said the aim of the operation is to protect Israeli lives and crush Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.

"The IDF's objective as defined by the Israeli government is to establish a reality in which Israeli residents can live in safety and security without continues indiscriminate terror, while striking a significant blow to Hamas's terror infrastructure," the statement said.

Israel launched Operation Protective Edge on July 8 and the army said the new operation will include ground and air assaults.

"This stage of operation 'Protective Edge', led by the IDF's Southern Command, will include close coordination between IDF units including infantry, armoured corps, engineer corps, artillery, and intelligence combined with aerial and naval support," it said.

"This effort will also be supported by the Israeli Security Agency (ISA) and other intelligence organisations," the army added.

"In the face of Hamas' tactics to leverage civilian casualties in pursuit of its terrorist goals, the IDF will continue in its unprecedented efforts to limit civilian harm," it said.

Israel's army increased the draft of reserve force to 18,000 troops following the approval of the government.

A spokeswoman told AFP the decision raised the overall number of soldiers called in since the start of Operation Protective Edge to 65,000, without saying how many of them had actually been mobilised.

The overall death toll in Gaza- since July 8- reached 246 after Israeli tank fire killed five people in the strip, medics said. The deaths included a five-month-old baby and a 22-year-old killed in separate incidents of tank shelling in southern Rafah early on Friday. 

Medics in Gaza said earlier that many of the killed were children, with a NGO based in the coastal enclave saying 80 percent of the deaths are civilians. One Israeli has been killed by rocket fire from Gaza. 

Hamas has turned down an Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire demanding an end to the 7-year-old siege of Gaza by Israel.

Senior Hamas official Ghazi Hamad said the Islamist Palestinian movement refuses to accept the Cairo proposal "in its current form" and seeks a series of conditions for a truce with Israel.

Israel will pay a "high price" for launching a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Hamas movement said on Thursday night.

"The start of the Israeli ground attack on Gaza is a dangerous step, the consequences of which have not been calculated," said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum in a statement.

"Israel will pay a high price and Hamas is ready for the confrontation."

*This story was edited by Ahram Online

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