This story has been updated.
The Israeli military launched a ground invasion into the Gaza Strip on Thursday, marking a dramatic escalation of the 10-day air war between Hamas and Jerusalem.
The purpose of the ground offensive, according to a statement by the Israeli government, is to destroy the tunnels connecting Gaza to Israel that enable Hamas fighters to attack Israeli citizens. "[The operation] will deal significant damage to the infrastructure of Hamas and other terrorist organisations in the Gaza Strip," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said in a statement.
A spokesperson for Netanyahu said in a separate statement that military forces had been told "to be prepared for an expansion of the ground action" if the prime minister orders it. Earlier on Thursday, July 17, defense forces said they thwarted an attempted attack on Israeli citizens by Hamas fighters using the tunnels. The spokesperson said that Israel launched the ground offensive after Hamas "rejected" an Egyptian cease-fire proposal and continued to fire rockets at Israeli cities.
"Hamas also did not honor the humanitarian ceasefire initiated by the [United Nations] and continued firing at Israeli cities during the lull," the spokesperson said. "In light of Hamas’ criminal and relentless aggression, as well as the dangerous attempt to infiltrate Israeli territory, Israel must act to defend its citizens." The spokesperson said the ground assault would continue until the Israeli military restores "quiet to Israel’s citizens for a prolonged period, while inflicting a significant blow to the infrastructures of Hamas and the other terrorist organizations."
According to dispatches from journalists and Palestinians in Gaza, the announcement of the ground assault coincided with a heavy barrage of artillery fire from Israeli troops in the north combined with bombing offensives from gunboats and fighter jets.
The launch of the operation came after 13 Hamas militants attempted to carry out an attack in southern Israel on Thursday morning by traveling through a tunnel connecting Gaza to Israel. According to the Israeli military, eight of the attackers were killed; Hamas claimed responsibility for the assault.
After 10 days of fighting, at least 231 Palestinians have been killed and more than 1,500 have been hundred injured. One Israeli has been killed in a rocket-fire attack.
Earlier in the day, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Arab League Secretary-General Nabil El-Araby conducted cease-fire talks in Cairo. The session was also attended by an Israeli delegation, but it left after several hours of discussions.
For the time being, Arab diplomats in New York were waiting to see whether talks in Egypt on a cease-fire progress before deciding whether to turn to the U.N. Security Council for help in stopping the fighting. "There is intense effort being made by President Abbas in Cairo in trying to finalize what would be a cease-fire," said one Arab diplomat. "That’s where all the efforts are for the moment."
Colum Lynch contributed reporting.