A Palestinian protester gestures to Israeli soldiers during a protest against the Israeli offensive in Gaza strip, at Hawara checkpoint near the West Bank city of Nablus. REUTERS/Abed Omar Qusini
Israel has warned it could "significantly widen" a Gaza land
offensive but was cautioned by its main ally, the United
States, about the risks of further escalation as Palestinian
civilian deaths mounted.
Palestinian officials said 58 Palestinians, at least 15 of
them under the age of 18, have been killed since Israel sent
ground forces on Thursday into the densely-populated enclave
of 1.8 million Palestinians.
The Israeli military said it killed 17 Palestinian gunmen
while another 13 surrendered and were taken for questioning
after the infantry and tank assault began in the Islamist
One Israeli soldier was killed in an apparent friendly fire
incident, the military said, and several other troops were
wounded in the ground operations. It said some 150 targets,
including 21 concealed rocket launchers and four tunnels,
have been attacked.
U.S. President Barack Obama said on Friday he had spoken to
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, underscoring Washington's
support for Israel to defend itself but raising concerns
about "the risks of further escalation" and additional loss
of innocent lives.
"We are hopeful that Israel will continue to approach this
process in a way that minimises civilian casualties," Obama
told reporters at the White House.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon planned to travel to the
Middle East on Saturday in a bid to end the hostilities.
At an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council on
Friday, U.N. political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman
condemned rocket fire into Israel but voiced alarm at
"Israel's heavy response".
The Israeli land advance followed 10 days of barrages against
Gaza from air and sea, hundreds of rockets fired by Hamas
into Israel and failed attempts by Egypt, a broker of
ceasefires in previous Israeli-Palestinian flare-ups, to
secure a truce.
After nightfall on Friday, flares fired by Israeli forces
cast an orange glow above the coastal enclave as explosions
echoed in what appeared to be intensified Israeli attacks
from the air and ground.
Rocket salvoes, many of them intercepted by the Iron Dome
anti-missile shield system, continued on Friday against
southern Israel and the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, police
said, causing no casualties.
"We chose to start this operation after we exhausted other
options and reached the conclusion that without it we could
pay a much higher price," Netanyahu told reporters before a
special cabinet session at Tel Aviv military headquarters.
"The main goal is to restore quiet.
"My instructions...to the Israeli army, with the approval of
the security cabinet, is to prepare for the possibility of a
widening, a significant widening of the ground operation."
He did not say what form a broadened offensive might take.
Israel says its forces have focused so far on seeking out
tunnels Palestinian militants might use for cross-border
raids and moving weaponry.
One such infiltration was narrowly thwarted on Thursday, with
the army saying it had repelled 13 Hamas gunmen after they
emerged from a tunnel close to an Israeli farming community.
In all, 291 Palestinians - most of them civilians, of whom at
least 50 were under the age of 18 - have been killed since
fighting began on July 8, Gaza officials said.
There have been two Israeli fatalities - the soldier and a
civilian, who was killed by a rocket. More than 100 rocket
bursts a day at southern Israel and the heartland Tel Aviv
area have sent hundreds of thousands dashing for shelters.
Gaza residents said Israeli forces has moved several hundreds
metres (yards) into the north of the enclave and their
deployment in the south of the territory was slightly deeper.
Hamas said its men were hitting Israeli tanks with mortar
rounds and setting off bombs against troops crossing the
sandy frontier under smokescreens.
To back up regular forces, Israel said it was calling up
18,000 military reservists, adding to 30,000 already
mobilised. Abu Ubaida, spokesman for Hamas's armed wing, said
it had thousands of fighters of its own "waiting to join the
Hamas wants Israel and Egypt, whose military-backed
government is at odds with the Palestinian Islamists, to lift
border restrictions that have deepened Gaza's economic
hardship and unemployment.
Israel briefly halted its Gaza assaults on Tuesday after
accepting an Egyptian truce proposal. But Hamas, an offshoot
of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, said the plan
failed to address its demands on ending the border blockades
and releasing hundreds of its activists in the occupied West
Bank activists held by Israel.
A U.S. official said Secretary of State John Kerry had been
in regular contact with the foreign minister of the Gulf Arab
state of Qatar, which has close links with Hamas, and other
leaders "on how to get a ceasefire".
Qatar has suggested it take over as mediator but the U.S. and
Israel say it is too close to Hamas to take on that role.
"In all his recent calls, the Secretary has made clear that
we support the Egyptian proposal, and that we hope that
everyone can get behind it," the official said. "There are no
other serious ceasefire proposals being discussed."
Kerry's position was echoed by Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli
Defence Ministry official who has held talks with Egypt's
military-backed government on Cairo truce plan.
"It is important for Qatar to understand that an alternative
initiative would be useless," he said on Israel's Channel 10
TV. "Let's be realistic: who borders Gaza - Qatar or Egypt?"
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri, speaking at a news
conference with his French counterpart Laurent Fabius, called
on all sides to accept Cairo's ceasefire initiative.
"We are working to find a framework so that both sides
agree," Shukri said.
Though they are die-hard enemies, Israel says it does not
intend to topple Hamas, the dominant Islamist force in Gaza.
The current conflict - the worst warfare between Israelis and
Palestinians in two years - was stoked by the killing of
three Israeli teens in the West Bank last month and the death
on July 2 of a Palestinian youth in a suspected revenge
Israel last mounted a large-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip
during a three-week war in late 2008 and early 2009 that
claimed 1,400 Palestinian and 13 Israeli lives.