Beach firefight between commandos and Hamas as Israel tightens its grip on Gaza
Israeli naval commandos fought Hamas gunmen in a beachfront firefight yesterday after Israel attempted the first boots-on-the-ground operation of its offensive in Gaza.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, later warned that the military operation, in which 166 Palestinians have been killed so far, could go on for a "long time".
The early-morning clash broke out after Hamas militants – alerted by a lookout stationed in a nearby mosque – intercepted Israeli special forces trying to wade ashore at Sudaniya in northern Gaza.
The two sides engaged each other in the sea, according to one witness account, in two hours of shooting in which four Israeli troops were wounded. The Israeli military said the mission had achieved its goal of destroying rocket launching sites near the beach.
The amphibious landing came as Israeli reservists massed along the Gaza land frontier with tanks and artillery for a possible ground invasion following six days of aerial bombardment.
Sa'ad Dowla, a caretaker at the al-Mathaf Hotel, less than 100 yards from the scene of the firefight, said he heard Palestinian shooting first.
"When I looked out, both sides were in the sea shooting at each other," he said.
"After the shooting started, an Israeli helicopter came and started strafing the water."
The fight happened after an Israeli bomb attack killed up to 22 members of the same family in a targeted strike on the home of Gaza's Hamas police chief. It was the highest number killed in a single strike since Israel began Operation Protective Edge last Tuesday.
Tayseer Batsh, the police chief, was critically injured in the incident, which happened at 10pm on Saturday, about an hour after Hamas fired a salvo of rockets aimed at Tel Aviv.
Witnesses described two large bombs striking the Batsh family home in Gaza City's Tuffah neighbourhood.
A deep crater was left where the house had stood.
"The explosions were like an earthquake. We could feel the ground shaking under us," said Mohammed Batsh, a family relative and civil engineering student who was returning from a nearby mosque at the time.
"The smoke was so thick that we couldn't see for at least 15 minutes. After it cleared, I saw bodyparts everywhere, some of them thrown a long way away. I know all the people in that house but the corpses were so badly torn to pieces that I didn't recognise them. The majority of the people killed were civilians. They were not involved in military activities."
Seventeen members of the extended family were confirmed dead while earth-moving machines searched yesterday for another five missing, presumed dead, including a pregnant woman.
Residents fled the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya in a mass exodus prompted by a warning from the Israeli army in dropped leaflets and text messages that they should evacuate their homes by noon local time to avoid the consequences of a planned bombardment.
About 4,000 people – many carrying bedding and other possessions on donkey carts – crowded into eight UN schools specially opened to accommodate them.
The sound of explosions could be heard from inside Beit Lahiya's local hospital after the evacuation deadline.
Hamas continued to fire rockets into Israel – taking the number of missiles launched by the Islamists in the past week to more than 830. There have been no Israeli fatalities.
Mr Netanyahu said Hamas was to blame for all civilian casualties in Gaza and that the "patient and level-headed" action against militants would continue.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, spoke to Mr Netanyahu to renew a US offer to help mediate a truce.
He "highlighted the United States' concern about escalating tensions on the ground", a senior State Department official said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)