Israeli jets, tanks and troops conducted a large operation early Friday aimed at destroying Hamas’s tunnel system in Gaza as rockets rained down on Israel overnight, diplomats scrambled to negotiate a cease-fire and street clashes continued between Jewish and Arab Israelis.
The 40-minute midnight assault was the biggest in five days of fighting, and involved 160 Israeli war planes, multiple tanks and three brigades of ground troops, according to a spokesman for the Israeli military.
Though ground forces were involved, they did not enter Gaza, said Lt. Jonathan Conricus, contradicting a statement the night before that a ground assault was underway.
Conricus said the operation targeted a sprawling system of tunnels Hamas has spent years building underneath Gaza’s streets, raising the possibility of significant civilian casualties.
“Unlike our very elaborate efforts to clear civilian areas before we strike high-rises or large buildings inside Gaza, that wasn’t feasible this time,” he said, adding that the operation had targeted Hamas tunnels and infrastructure with “precision-guided munitions.”
Militants in Gaza fired some 55 rockets overnight, bringing the total to about 1,800, according to the Israeli military.
After initially saying that its troops were on the ground “in Gaza,” Israel issued a “clarification” saying that was not the case.
The death toll in Gaza climbed to 119, with 830 wounded, Gaza’s Health Ministry reported.
An elderly woman died overnight when she fell while running to shelter in southern Israel, bringing the number of people killed in Israel to seven civilians and one soldier.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to continue military actions “as long as necessary” and to exact “a very heavy price” from Hamas.
Residents of Gaza City said intense, almost continuous airstrikes began to pound the northern Gaza Strip around midnight in an assault that lasted about half an hour.
As Israeli war planes bombed Gaza, two infantry brigades and an armored one approached but did not cross the border, Conricus said. Tanks fired approximately 50 rounds into the enclave.
“The aim of that joint activity of air and ground forces was to deliver a severe blow to Hamas’s underground tunnel system, which we refer to as the ‘metro,’ which is essentially a city beneath the city of Gaza,” he said. “It is a strategic asset that Hamas has invested many years of effort and time and significant resources to construct.”
It was too soon to say how much of the tunnel system had been destroyed, he said.
Despite the sweeping operation, Hamas gave no signs of stopping its rocket attacks, one of which struck the coastal Israeli city of Ashkelon, critically injuring one man and wounding two more, according to the Times of Israel.
“We have much more to give,” a Hamas spokesman known as Abu Obaida said in a televised statement Thursday. “The decision to hit Tel Aviv, Dimona and Jerusalem is easier for us than drinking water. Your technology and assassinations don’t scare us.”