Israeli ground troops and tanks cut swaths through the Gaza Strip early Sunday, bisecting the coastal territory and surrounding its biggest city as the new phase of a devastating offensive against Hamas gained momentum.
Thousands of soldiers in three brigade-size formations pushed into Gaza after nightfall Saturday, beginning a long-awaited ground offensive after a week of intense aerial bombardment. Black smoke billowed over Gaza City at first light and bursts of machine gun fire rang out.
From the Associated Press
In his first public comments since the ground operation was launched, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his Cabinet on Sunday that Israel could not allow its civilians to continue to be targeted by rockets from Gaza.
“This morning I can look every one you in the eyes and say the government did everything before deciding to go ahead with the operation,” he said.
A senior military officer said Hamas was well-prepared for the Israeli incursion into Gaza, a densely populated territory of 1.4 million where militants operate and easily hide in the crowded urban landscape. He said the operation was “not a rapid one that would end in hours or a few days.”
Still, he said, “We have no intention of staying in the Gaza Strip for the long term.” He spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with army regulations.
TV footage showed Israeli troops with night-vision goggles and camouflage face paint marching in single file. Artillery barrages preceded their advance, and they moved through fields and orchards following bomb-sniffing dogs ensuring their routes had not been booby-trapped.
The military said troops killed or wounded dozens of militant fighters, but Palestinian medical teams in Gaza, unable to move because of the fighting, could not provide casualty figures. Hamas said only three of its fighters had been killed, and Gaza health officials said eight civilians also died, including a 12-year-old girl in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya and four family members killed in an airstrike in southern Gaza.
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