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Associated Press
Smoke from flares rises in the sky in Gaza City on Thursday. Israel launched a large-scale ground offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli forces launch Gaza ground offensive

– Israeli forces backed by artillery barrages and airstrikes launched a major ground offensive into the Gaza Strip late Thursday, marking a dramatic escalation of the 10-day-old conflict with the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Spokesmen for the Israel Defense Forces said the goal of the offensive was limited: to destroy tunnels used by the militants to infiltrate into Israel. “This requires precise operations,” their statement said. Among the troops moving in were engineering units with armored bulldozers.

“We have hit Hamas hard and we will continue to hit Hamas hard,” Israel’s military said in a tweet shortly after thousands of Israeli soldiers entered Gaza.

It was Israel’s first ground incursion into Gaza since January 2009, when it engaged in a three-week battle with Hamas that killed more than 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. Thursday’s operation came hours after diplomatic efforts in Cairo to negotiate a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas failed.

The assault creates significant challenges and risks for Israel. Casualties could soar in a conflict that, as of Thursday, had claimed more than 200 Palestinian lives and left one Israeli dead. Israeli soldiers also face the prospect of a guerrilla war in Gaza’s densely populated territory.

Hamas has bolstered its arsenal since seizing control of Gaza in 2007. Over the past 10 days, it has shown a capability to target Israeli towns with longer-range rockets even as it faces heavy air bombardments by Israel. On Thursday evening, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhom warned that the Israelis “have taken a dangerous step.”

“They did not study the consequences,” he added. “The occupation forces will pay a high price, and Hamas is ready for this confrontation.”

The ground offensive began at 10 p.m. local time and involved dozens of infantry and artillery units, as well as air and naval support, said an Israel Defense Forces spokesman, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner. The military, he added, plans to call up 18,000 reserve troops in addition to the 50,000 reservists activated so far.

Despite their determination to destroy Hamas’ military infrastructure, Israeli military officials have said in recent days that they don’t seek to reoccupy Gaza, seeing that as creating a host of new problems.

Nor are they interested in overthrowing the Hamas government in Gaza, fearing that a power vacuum could result, with dozens of militant factions vying for control.

Analysts expect the Israeli ground forces to focus on destroying the tunnels and trying to avoid engaging Hamas fighters as much as possible.

“If all that will stop the shooting from Gaza into Israel, I believe that after a few days they will go back,” said Itamar Yaar, a former top official at Israel’s National Security Council. But he added that if Hamas attacks Israeli soldiers, then the “Israeli Cabinet will not have any other choice, other than to give orders to the armed forces to go deeper.”

Israel’s housing minister Uri Ariel, a hardliner, said in an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 News that Israeli troops had to “finish the work.”

“We will not reach a cease-fire in the next few days; it will take longer,” he said. “I believe it will not end with just destroying the tunnels.”