Israel masses troops for Gaza 'ground invasion' as air strikes and rocket launches intensify

Violence comes after deaths of three Israeli teenagers and apparent revenge killing of a Palestinian boy
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Israel has warned that it is preparing troops for a possible ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, amid an escalation of violence following the deaths of three Israeli teenagers and one Palestinian.

Launching what it described as a potentially long-term offensive against Hamas dubbed “Operation Protective Edge”, the Israeli military has called up some 1,500 reservists and said an incursion of soldiers on the group was “not off the table”.

Nearly 300 rockets and mortars have been fired at Israel in recent weeks, including a barrage of close to 100 projectiles on Monday alone, the military said, marking a huge surge after years of relative quiet.

And as rocket fire resumed with more than 15 strikes on southern Israel this morning, army spokesman Lt Col Peter Lerner said an open-ended campaign had been launched to “retrieve stability in the region”.

Around 100 sites in Gaza have been struck today. At least 15 Palestinians, including three children, were killed in the attacks from air and sea, Palestinian medical officials said.

Israel said it had offered a ceasefire on the condition that the rocket barrage was stopped.

“They chose the direction of escalation,” Lerner said. “So the mission will go on as long as we feel it is necessary to carry it out. We don't expect it to be a short mission on our behalf.”

Israel's defense minister announced a special state of emergency in the region today as summer camps and schools were shut down and residents encouraged to stay close to their homes.

It said five projectiles from Gaza were intercepted by the country's sophisticated Iron Dome missile defense system. A German cruise operator docking in the Ashdod port said debris fell onto one of its ships late Monday as it was departing, though no one was harmed.

Among the sites the army said it targetted early today were four houses belonging to militants, three militant compounds, 18 concealed rocket launchers, and other militant infrastructure sites. Most were targeted in air strikes, and three were attacked from the sea.

Later, it also claimed to have destroyed a Hamas command centre that it said was embedded within a civilian building.

Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kedra said at least nine Palestinian civilians were brought to a Gaza hospital with light to moderate injuries from the air strikes, including several who suffered from shock. He said some of the injured Palestinians were treated and released.

Hamas has amassed about 10,000 rockets, including longer-range rockets that can reach “up to Tel Aviv and beyond,” Lerner said, adding that the army was preparing for the possibility that Hamas would launch rockets toward Israel's heartland and its commercial and cultural hub.

The army ordered hundreds of thousands of Israelis within a 40 km (25 mile) radius of the Gaza Strip to stay indoors, including Israelis in the major southern city of Beersheva, Lerner said.

Lerner said last month's kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank was connected to the intensified rocket fire carried out by Hamas militants in Gaza. Israel blames Hamas for the teens' abduction and is conducting a manhunt for two Hamas-affiliated Palestinians in the West Bank it believes carried out the kidnapping and killing.

gaza-10.jpgThe Israeli government has not yet provided proof of Hamas' involvement in the kidnapping.

Tensions have been high since three Israeli teenagers kidnapped June 12 in the West Bank were later found dead, followed by last week's slaying of the Palestinian youth.

The charged climate inspired President Barack Obama to pen an op-ed for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, published today.

“All parties must protect the innocent and act with reasonableness and restraint, not vengeance and retribution,” he said.

Additional reporting by AP