The Israeli military pounded northern Gaza with heavy artillery and conducted extensive airstrikes Friday in efforts to destroy a vast network of tunnels used by Palestinian extremists, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that the campaign “will continue as long as necessary” — since “the last word has not been said.”
Paving the way for a possible ground invasion, the Israel Defense Forces has called up 9,000 reservists and amassed troops along the border as the fighting with Hamas and Islamic Jihad entered its fifth day.
The operation will persist, according to Netanyahu who said in a video statement that Israel would “extract a very heavy price from Hamas,” The Jerusalem Post reported.
“I said that we would exact a very heavy price from Hamas and the other terrorist organizations,” he said.
“We are doing so and we will continue to do so with great force. The last word has not been said and this operation will continue as long as necessary in order to restore the quiet and security to the State of Israel,” he added, referring to the so-called “Operation Guardians of the Wall.”
Palestinian militants have fired about 1,800 rockets and the IDF has launched more than 600 airstrikes, toppling at least three apartment blocks, in the fighting, which the Hamas-led Health Ministry in Gaza said has so far claimed 119 lives and injured 830.
It said the deaths include 31 children and 19 women.
The Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups have confirmed 20 deaths in their ranks, though Israel says that number is significantly highe
Seven Israelis have been killed, including a 21-year-old soldier and a 6-year-old boy.
On Friday morning, a 50-year-old Israeli woman died after being injured three days ago on her way to bomb shelter, Walla reported.
An 87-year old woman also died from a head injury she suffered as she headed to a bomb shelter during a rocket attack, according to The Jerusalem Post.
Militants have fired about 2,000 rockets and mortar shells toward Israel since the outbreak of fighting on Monday, the IDF said. The vast majority have been shot down by the Iron Dome defense system.
Military spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said tanks stationed near the border fired 50 rounds as part of the large operation aimed at destroying tunnels – which the military refers to as “the Metro” — under Gaza City used by militants to evade surveillance and airstrikes.
“There are no… ground troops inside Gaza at the moment,” he said.
Conricus took responsibility for an erroneous IDF report that ground forces had entered Gaza, but confirmed that ground troops had taken part in an operation carried out from Israeli territory targeting tunnels under the border.
Some 160 Israeli jets flying simultaneously conducted a massive attack on the tunnels, the Times of Israel reported.
In the northern Gaza Strip, Rafat Tanani, his pregnant wife and four children were killed after an Israeli jet reduced the building to rubble, residents said.
Sadallah Tanani, a relative, said the family was “wiped out from the population register” without warning. “It was a massacre. My feelings are indescribable,” he said.
Conricus said that “as always, the aim is to strike military targets and to minimize collateral damage and civilian casualties. Unlike our very elaborate efforts to clear civilian areas before we strike high-rise or large buildings inside Gaza, that wasn’t feasible this time.”
The IDF said it “wasn’t feasible this time” to forewarn civilians as it did ahead of strikes on Gaza tower blocks earlier this week, according to AFP.
The strikes came after Egyptian mediators arrived in Israel for cease-fire talks that showed no signs of progress.
Saleh Aruri, an exiled senior Hamas leader, told the London-based news outlet Al Araby that his group has turned down a proposal for a three-hour lull. He said Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations were leading the truce efforts.
Meanwhile, the IDF reported late Thursday that three rockets were fired from Lebanon into the Mediterranean Sea in northern Israel, raising the specter of a possible two-front war, according to The Jerusalem Post.
Hamas showed no signs of backing down. It fired its most powerful rocket, the Ayyash, nearly 120 miles into southern Israel. It landed in the open desert but briefly disrupted flight traffic at the southern Ramon airport.
Hamas also has launched two so-called “suicide drones” that Israel said it quickly shot down.
On Friday, the group released a video of the “Shehab” drone, which reportedly carried a roughly 5-kilogram explosives payload, The Times of Israel reported.
Hamas military spokesman Abu Obeida said the group was not afraid of a ground invasion, which would be a chance “to increase our catch” of dead or captive soldiers.
The current violence began a month ago in Jerusalem during clashes ath the Al-Aqsa Mosque, a compound that is revered by Jews and Muslims.
Israel regards all of Jerusalem as its capital, while the Palestinians want East Jerusalem, which includes sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, to be the capital of their future state.
The stepped-up fighting came as communal violence in Israel erupted for a fourth night, with Jewish and Arab mobs clashing in the flashpoint town of Lod.