Israel’s military has said forces on the ground have joined the air assault on the Gaza Strip as residents reported a massive bombardment, amid fears of an incursion into the blockaded territory.
Israel’s military has said its ground and air forces are attacking targets in the Gaza Strip as residents reported a massive bombardment, amid fears of an incursion into the blockaded territory.
“[Israel Defense Forces] air and ground troops are currently attacking in the Gaza Strip,” the military said in a statement just after midnight local time, without providing further details.
The military later issued a statement saying there were no troops inside the Gaza Strip, suggesting it was not a ground invasion but artillery and tank fire from the border. “Clarification: there are currently no IDF ground troops inside the Gaza Strip. IDF air and ground forces are carrying out strikes on targets in the Gaza Strip,” the statement said.
The attacks nevertheless marked a significant escalation in the worst bout of fighting in years. Shortly after the initial military announcement, in an apparent reference to the operation, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, tweeted: “The last word was not said and this operation will continue as long as necessary.”
In the early hours of Friday, masses of red flames illuminated the skies as the deafening blasts from the outskirts of Gaza City, which lies more than 1km from the frontier, jolted people awake as their apartment blocks shook. The strikes were so strong that people could be heard screaming in fear.
Shortly after it started attacking, Israel’s military said residents up to 4km around the frontier should head into bomb shelters, and militants began firing salvos of rockets shortly after the attack.
On Thursday, Israeli military plans for a possible ground operation in the Hamas-controlled territory had been expected to be put before political leaders. Forces had been told to “prepare for battle” and the army called up 7,000 reservists, and cancelled leave for all combat units.
While the escalating military conflict with Gaza is the worst since a 2014 war, Israel’s political leaders said on Thursday that violent street clashes between Jews and Arabs inside the country pose a bigger threat.
Netanyahu visited the town of Lod, where there has been rioting, burning of cars, destruction of property and violent attacks on individuals.
“We have no bigger threat now than these pogroms, and we have no choice but to restore law and order via determined use of force,” he said. In an earlier statement, he said the country was fighting a battle “on two fronts”.
Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, said a “civil war [would] be a danger to our existence, more than all the dangers we have from the outside”.
Intercommunal violence, including beatings, stabbings, shooting and arson, has been reported across the country, from Beersheba in the southern Negev to Tiberias and Haifa in the north. A television journalist was attacked in Tel Aviv.
More than 400 people have been arrested, and border police have been redeployed from the occupied West Bank to towns inside Israel. “We’re in an emergency, the defence minister, Benny Gantz, said in a statement.
The opposition leader, Yair Lapid, said there had been a “complete loss of control”. He accused Netanyahu of “leading us to anarchy”. “Jewish and Arab rioters have declared war on Israel, and there’s no response, no government, no police, no leadership,” he said.
Lod was closed off from Thursday afternoon, and an overnight curfew imposed. Netanyahu said people involved in clashes could be indefinitely detained without charge, a practice known as administrative detention.
In Gaza, militants had continued to fire rockets while the Israeli air force fired missiles throughout the day. In the enclave, shops, restaurants and parks that would normally be packed for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr were deserted.
The Israeli military said it had hit a main command centre where dozens of Hamas operatives were conducting surveillance, and four apartments from which senior commanders directed rocket attacks.
Hamas said it had launched a number of “suicide drones” into southern Israel. The drones lock onto targets before releasing explosives. Warning sirens sounded almost continuously through the day in towns in southern Israel as Palestinian militants fired hundreds of rockets.
A total of 103 people, including at least 27 children, have been killed in Gaza, according to the health ministry. On Thursday alone, 49 Palestinians were killed in the enclave. In Israel, seven people, including two children, have been killed.
More than 1,700 rockets have been fired from Gaza since Monday, according to the Israeli military. It said a third had fallen inside Gaza, and the Israeli defence system Iron Dome has intercepted most of the rest.
Ealier in the day the US president, Joe Biden, said there had “not been a significant overreaction” by Israel to the Hamas rocket attacks. “The question is how, how we get to a point, they get to a point, where there is a significant reduction in the attacks, particularly the rocket attacks that are indiscriminately fired into population centres,” he told reporters at the White House.
Abu-Ubaida, a spokesperson for Hamas’s military wing, the Izzadin al-Qassam Brigades, claimed that an Ayyash rocket with a range of 250km had been launched towards Ramon airport. The local council said a rocket had landed in the area.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and the UN secretary general, António Guterres, called jointly for an end to the fighting.
“The primary task is to stop violent actions on both sides and ensure the safety of the civilian population,” the Kremlin said in a statement after a video call with Guterres.