After days of waiting and deliberation, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Thursday night directed the IDF to send ground troops into Gaza to strike the terror tunnels into Israel.
Signaling that the initial phase of the ground attack would be limited, a statement put out by the Prime Minister’s Office said Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon directed the IDF to prepare to expand the ground operation.
The statement said the security cabinet approved the operation after Israel agreed to the Egyptian cease-fire proposal on Tuesday, which Hamas rejected. In addition, the statement said, Hamas even fired rockets during Thursday’s five-hour humanitarian cease-fire.
The dramatic decision followed, by less than 24-hours, an attempted massive attack by 13 terrorists who burrowed into Israel through a tunnel near Kibbutz Sufa, but were discovered and repelled.
“In light of Hamas’s continuous criminal aggression, and the dangerous infiltration into Israeli territory, Israel is obligated to act in defense of its citizens,” the statement said.
The statement said Operation Protective Edge, now in its 11th day, will continue until its goals are reached: restoring quiet for an extended period of time, and delivering a significant blow to Hamas and the other terrorist organizations in Gaza.
The IDF initiated the ground offensive at 10:38 p.m. by sending large numbers of forces to destroy terrorist tunnels.
Infantry, Armored Corps, Engineering Corps, artillery and intelligence units are taking over various areas in Gaza, and are all working with one another and the air force. They are operating in central, and southern Gaza, where Hamas has dug an extensive terrorist tunnel network. The IDF’s Southern Command is overseeing the ground offensive.
The units involved have undergone intensive training recently ahead of their missions, Brig.-Gen. Moti Almoz, IDF spokesman, said on Thursday night.
“The operation has reached its ground phase,” Almoz said. “Large numbers of forces began a focused effort to destroy tunnels in Gaza. We are in a new stage.”
At the same time, the air force is continuing with air strikes against Hamas and Islamic Jihad around Gaza.
Ground forces are currently engaging terrorist infrastructure, and the operation “will be expanded as needed,” Almoz said. “They’re moving now in various areas of Gaza. We will continue to attack in every location we think needs to be struck.”
The IDF is calling up more reserves, Almoz added. The ground operation began following a massive wave of combined air and artillery strikes up and down Gaza on Thursday night. Gazans fired heavy barrages of rockets at central Israel and the Shfela regions, all of which were intercepted by Iron Dome. Egyptian officials blamed Hamas for the deterioration in the situation and Israel’s ground incursion into Gaza.
Hamas violated the humanitarian cease-fire set for 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. when it fired three projectiles at the Eshkol region.
The rockets exploded in open areas.
Hamas bombarded Israel with rockets after the humanitarian truce ended, firing more than 100 projectiles after 3 p.m. Eighty-one rockets hit open areas, two struck built-up areas, damaging two homes, and 20 were intercepted by the Iron Dome air-defense system.
A soldier was lightly wounded by a rocket fragment in the Hof Ashkelon region.
Also on Thursday, a drone from Gaza was detected over the Ashkelon area. The IAF fired a Patriot surface-to-air missile at the craft, destroying it. It was the second Hamas drone to be shot down in recent days.
The IDF warned civilians in Gaza to leave their homes and make their way from less populated areas to the Strip’s major cities.
Close to 100,000 leaflets containing the message were dropped over the territory and hundreds of thousands of people received recorded phone messages warning them to vacate villages.
Air raid sirens sounded throughout southern and central Israel during the day.
Hamas repeatedly targeted Ashkelon and Ashdod in the evening. Iron Dome interceptors succeeded in defending the cities.
Iron Dome batteries intercepted two rockets over central Israel and the Sharon region in the evening, and one over Ashdod.
Several rockets struck open areas.
Between 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., Hamas fired 40 rockets at Israel, and Iron Dome shot three down.
The Gaza border region of Eshkol came under continuous rocket barrages. Some 10 rockets struck open areas, and one damaged a home.
Two rockets were fired at Beersheba, with one striking an open area and a second intercepted over the Negev city.
Within a minute of the ceasefire ending, Gazan rockets were fired at the Ashkelon industrial area and the Hof Ashkelon region. Most struck open areas.
On Thursday morning before the cease-fire, one rocket was intercepted over central Israel, and one rocket hit an open area. In Beersheba, Iron Dome intercepted an incoming Gazan rocket.
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.