Israel has launched a large-scale ground offensive in the Gaza Strip escalating a 10-day military operation.
It was the first major Israeli ground offensive in Gaza in just over five years. It came hours after Hamas militants tried to infiltrate Israel through a tunnel under the Gaza-Israel border, but were stopped by Israel.
Thousands of soldiers backed by tanks and huge DC9 bulldozers entered the Hamas-ruled territory after nightfall, security officials and Israeli media said.
Lt Col Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, said the operation is open-ended.
"We will be striking the infrastructure," he said. "We will be striking the operatives in order to safeguard the civilians of the state of Israel especially issues to do with tunnelling, that was exemplified earlier today."
Thousands of Israeli soldiers had massed on the border with Gaza in recent days, waiting for the order to go in.
The operation also followed a brief truce earlier in which Israel held fire to allow Gazans to stock up on food and other necessities after being largely holed up at home since the conflict began last month.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed the army to go ahead after Hamas rejected an Egyptian ceasefire plan earlier in the week and after Hamas militants tried to infiltrate into Israel through a tunnel from Gaza.
"In light of the despicable and relentless aggression by Hamas and the dangerous infiltration into Israel, Israel is obliged to protect its citizens," the statement said.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Israel "will pay dearly" for the assault. "Hamas is ready for a confrontation," he said.
A Gaza security official reported heavy Israeli tank shelling along Gaza's border areas with Israel since 8 p.m. Thursday.
"All border areas are under fire. There is a tank shell every minute," he said. "There is also fire from the sea toward police checkpoints."
Israel last carried out a major ground offensive in Gaza in January 2009.
Israeli strikes have hit more than 2,000 targets in Gaza and Hamas launched nearly 1,500 rockets at Israel, the Israeli military has said.
The last ten days of violence has resulted in the deaths of 240 Palestinians and at least one Israeli.
Three children killed 'as they feed birds'
Earlier an Israeli air strike killed three children from the same family in Gaza City.
Two boys and a girl between the ages of eight and 10 were killed when their home was hit.
Their grandfather, Marzouk Shahaibar, said they had gone on the roof of the home to feed pigeons.
Mr Shahaibar told the Associated Press: "Without even realising it, they were struck from above. They weren't fighting. They did nothing."
TV footage from the scene showed a doll and a sandal near pools of blood on the roof.
The deaths come a day after four cousins aged nine to 11 were killed on the beach as they played football beside a coastal road west of Gaza City.
Five-month-old baby 'killed by tank fire'
During a period of unusually intense shelling late yesterday, the lights went out across parts of Gaza as the power was cut and the skyline was then lit by what appeared to be flares fired ahead of the assault.
Heavy fighting was reported to be taking place in the north of the Strip, in the Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya areas and also in Khan Younis and Rafah. Artillery fire, believed to be mortar and howitzer, was coming from the north intermittently, with rockets from Gaza arcing towards Israel.
Israeli media reported the loud rumblings of Israeli tanks and D9 bulldozers revving up their engines to cross the border. Emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra told the AFP news agency that Israeli tank fire had killed a five-month-old baby and another person in Rafah, southern Gaza, in the early hours of Friday local time.
One resident of Beit Lahiya said in a telephone call: “There are shots being heard, we are all staying inside. A lot of the area has no electricity at the moment.”
In messages on Twitter, another Gaza resident, Sarah Ali, described events following the end of the ceasefire at 3pm on Thursday local time.
“3:11 in Gaza & Israeli F16s are in the sky already. Must have been hard for terrorists to stop bombing people for 5 hours,” she said.
A few hours later, she wrote: “Now Israel is literally bombing #Gaza from everywhere: air, sea, and land. Terrifying sounds across the Strip. Sound of gunboat shelling is the most horrible. Not so loud but continuous & in barrage. Drones. Apaches & warships. Tanks on the outskirts of east & north Gaza. Families stuck with injuries. This is a war zone.”
Dr Basman Ashi, director of al-Wafa hospital in Gaza, said as the invasion began that there had been non-stop shelling of the area for 30 minutes. “They are destroying the hospital,” he told ABC News. He said he received a call, presumably from the Israeli military, warning him to leave. “Why don’t you think about your family, why don’t you leave, we’re going to destroy the hospital,” the caller said.
But Dr Alashi said there were 17 patients who were too unwell to be moved. “All of them will die, I have no way to take them out,” he said. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, said the troops had been sent in to destroy tunnels from Gaza to Israel used by Palestinian militants and would remain until their mission was accomplished. “The Prime Minister and the Defence Minister have ordered the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] to begin a ground operation in order to damage the terror tunnels constructed in Gaza leading into Israeli territory,” his office said in a statement.
18,000 IDF reserve soldiers called up
The IDF said it was calling up some 18,000 reserve soldiers after the government gave its approval.
Asked if this showed Israel was preparing for prolonged fighting, Mark Regev, the Israeli prime minister’s chief spokesman, told Sky News: “We have to be prepared for any eventuality. We don’t under-estimate Hamas’ power… Hamas is a formidable military machine.”
In messages on Twitter, the IDF sought to rally popular support for the invasion.
One tweet showed an Israeli soldier having camouflage paint applied to his face. “From the Field: Our soldiers preparing to enter Gaza. The whole nation stands behind them,” the message said.
Another said: “We have hit Hamas hard, and we will continue to hit Hamas hard.”
This morning, about 13 Palestinians attempted to infiltrate Israel through a “Hamas terror tunnel”, according to an Israeli army spokeswoman. The tunnel extended from the south of the Gaza Strip to Kibbutz Sufa in southern Israel, according to the army. Israeli troops discovered the infiltration attempt and an airstrike killed at least one militant, the spokeswoman added.
The IDF also said it had intercepted a drone flying over the city of Ashkelon, shooting it down with a Patriot missile. Mr Netanyahu’s statement said the decision to invade was taken after Hamas rejected a ceasefire plan proposed by Egypt and then fired rockets into Israel.
“In light of Hamas’ unending criminal attacks, and its dangerous incursions into Israeli territory, Israel is forced to defend its citizens,” it added. “Operation Protective Edge will continue until it achieves its objective – to restore quiet and safety to Israelis for a long time to come, while significantly harming the infrastructure of Hamas and other terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip.”
Lt Col Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, said the soldiers were going to be “striking the infrastructure... striking the operatives in order to safeguard the civilians of the state of Israel”.
Tzipi Livni, Israel’s Justice Minister, said in a statement she had backed the invasion with “a heavy heart, but wholeheartedly”.
She expressed anxiety for her country’s soldiers but also “love and confidence in their strength”.
Hamas said the ground invasion would have serious repercussions. “It does not scare the Hamas leaders or the Palestinian people,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said. “We warn Netanyahu of the dreadful consequences of such a foolish act.”
Nick Clegg criticism
Israel came under sharp criticism over its Gaza bombardments from the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.
Speaking on LBC radio, Mr Clegg said the Israeli response to rocket fire “appears to be deliberately disproportionate. It is now amounting to a disproportionate form of collective punishment. It is leading to a humanitarian crisis in Gaza which is just unacceptable”.
The US called on Israel to do more to prevent Palestinian civilian casualties after four children were killed on a beach in the Gaza Strip.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki reasserted Washington’s condemnation of Hamas’s “indiscriminate rocket attacks” targeting Israeli civilians and affirmed US support for Israel’s right to defend itself.