News Middle East

Saturday 20 September 2014

Netanyahu calls on his army to expand its invasion of Gaza

Ben Lynfield

Published 19/07/2014 | 02:30

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The Israeli prime minister said yesterday that he had instructed the army to expand its invasion of the Gaza Strip, after more than a dozen Palestinians and one Israeli were killed in the first night of fighting.

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Benjamin Netanyahu said: "The directive to the Israel Defence Forces that the cabinet has approved is to prepare for a significant widening of the ground operations. We chose to start this operation after we exhausted other options and reached the conclusion that without it we would pay a much higher price."

The ground offensive is a high-risk move for the Israeli premier. He could end up drawn into an all-out reoccupation of Gaza – this he wants to avoid for fear that anything that replaces Hamas rule would be worse. Moreover, casualties among his troops have already begun, with a 20-year-old soldier yesterday becoming the first Israeli fatality. Beyond that, Israel risks further alienating the international community with increasing Palestinian casualties.

Officially the ground offensive was launched late on Thursday after 10 days of aerial and sea bombardments with the stated objective of locating and destroying Hamas tunnels used to infiltrate Israel from Gaza.

But it is also clearly designed to soften up Hamas during Egyptian ceasefire efforts, in which the Islamist group has rejected an unconditional truce that would put an end to its rocket attacks against Israel and Israeli army operations.

It says easing of border strictures crippling the Gaza economy and release of re-arrested Hamas prisoners held by Israel need to be part of the equation.

"The Israeli hope is that on-the-ground military pressure, losses, pressure on the population and the elimination of assets will bring Hamas to the point where they say to the Egyptians "we'll deal, we'll drop our conditions", said Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies. He believes Mr Netanyahu, more cautious about using military force than his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, is not aiming for a full reoccupation.

"He has no appetite to escalate this into a full-fledged reoccupation and destruction of Hamas but it could end up like that if things get out of hand."

However, Maj-Gen Gad Shamni, former Israeli army division commander for Gaza, said yesterday that even the limited tunnel-searching goal will require penetrating urban areas of the densely packed coastal enclave. "You have to go one-and-a-half to two kilometres into Gaza to the outskirts of urban areas, you have to penetrate these ... to protect your forces that are searching and working to find the tunnels. It takes time," he said.

In the general's view, Israel's decision to call up 18,000 reservists, adding to 30,000 already mobilised, "hints that we are preparing to hold a wider operation if this second phase doesn't succeed".

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon is due to leave for the Middle East to help mediate in the conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas. Under-secretary-general for political affairs Jeffrey Feltman announced the visit at a UN Security Council emergency meeting on the conflict in Gaza.

He also said a ceasefire was "indispensable" for urgently needed humanitarian efforts to succeed. He said the UN refugee agency was already stretched to its limit.

Thousands of Israeli soldiers crossed into the Palestinian territory on the 10th day campaign of heavy air bombardments to try to destroy Hamas' rocket-firing abilities and the tunnels militants use to infiltrate Israel.

Jordan asked for a meeting after Israel launched a ground invasion of Gaza.

Nearly 20 Palestinians and an Israeli soldier were killed as troops clashed with militants in Gaza yesterday after Israel launched a ground operation aimed at destroying tunnels and halting rocket fire by the enclave's Hamas rulers.

Israel intensified its 11-day campaign against Hamas by sending in tanks and troops after becoming increasingly exasperated with unrelenting rocket fire from Gaza on its cities, especially following Hamas's rejection of an Egyptian ceasefire plan earlier in the week.

The Israeli military announced its first casualty since the start of the ground operation, saying one soldier was killed in the northern Gaza Strip.

The circumstances behind his death were not immediately clear, with Hamas's military wing saying it ambushed Israeli units in the northern town of Beit Lahiya and caused casualties but Israeli media saying it was likely a case of friendly fire.

Gaza health officials said 19 Palestinians have been killed since the ground operation began late on Thursday. The military said it killed 14 militants in different exchanges of fire. It was not immediately clear if the militants were among those reported killed by Gaza authorities.

Israel's chief military spokesman, Brigadier General Moti Almoz, told Army Radio that "there were a number of points of friction through the night". (© Independent News Services)

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