The Israeli prime minister says he has instructed the army to expand its invasion of the Gaza Strip, after 58 Palestinians - including 15 under 18s - and one Israeli were killed in the first night of fighting.
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 today 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 Center 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 that if things get out of hand.”
However, Maj-Gen Gad Shamni, former Israeli army division commander for Gaza, said 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 kilometers 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”.