JERUSALEM – Israeli soldiers and tanks fanned out along Gaza's borders Friday seeking out Hamas tunnel networks while pounding residential buildings with artillery and clashing with militants, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned of a possible “significant expansion” of Israel's ground offensive in the enclave.
The intensification of the conflict heightened concern about mounting Palestinian civilian casualties, even as the United States, Europe and several influential Muslim countries expressed support for Israel's offensive to weaken the Islamist militant group Hamas.
Hamas, though, continued to fire dozens of rockets into Israel throughout the night. Residents in southern Israel were hunkered inside their homes or in bomb shelters, as the military advised them to stay within 30 seconds' travel time to protected areas.
In Washington, President Barack Obama affirmed strong U.S. backing for Israel's right of self-defense. But Obama said he “also made clear that the United States and our friends and allies are deeply concerned about the risks of further escalation and the loss of more innocent life.”
The president said Washington has been assured that the ground offensive is aimed at reducing the threat to Israel from Hamas-built tunnels on the border that are used to infiltrate Israel and stage attacks.
For now, Israeli forces pursued a modest operation Friday, moving roughly 1.5 miles into the Gaza Strip and zeroing in on farming areas and the outskirts of towns to search for tunnels, a senior Israeli intelligence official with knowledge of the ground incursion told reporters in a conference call.
“Our main target for now is to find, expose and ruin as much as we can the offensive tunnels and continue to diminish, as much as we can, the launching of rockets,” the Israeli intelligence official said, insisting on anonymity in accord with military rules.
As many as 28 Palestinians have been killed since the ground operation began Thursday night, bringing the total Palestinian death toll to more than 260, with the injured topping 2,000, since the conflict erupted 11 days ago.
The most recent fatalities included three children who perished in an airstrike on an apartment complex in northern Gaza, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.
Hundreds of Palestinian families fled their houses, many carrying plastic bags filled with clothes and other possessions. Some 47,000 Palestinians have sought refuge in U.N. shelters, more than half that number arriving in the first 24 hours of the ground offensive, the United Nations said late Friday.
Overnight, a 20-year-old Israeli soldier was killed in northern Gaza, underscoring the risks to Israeli forces as they push into the densely populated ribbon of 1.7 million people.
He was the second Israeli killed in the conflict; on Tuesday in southern Israel, a civilian was killed near the Gaza border by a mortar round fired from the coastal territory.
“Because it is not possible to deal with the tunnels only from the air, our soldiers are now doing so on the ground,” Netanyahu said Friday before entering a cabinet meeting. “We chose to commence this operation after we had exhausted the other possibilities, and with the understanding that without action, the price that we would pay would be much greater.”
But Netanyahu also acknowledged that “there is no guarantee of 100 percent success” in the push to destroy the tunnels.
Even as Israel has relentlessly bombarded Gaza, Hamas militants have succeeded in firing hundreds of rockets into Israel, rattling Israelis.
Of the missiles Hamas launched Friday, 87 hit Israeli soil, the military said. About 40 were intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system.