July 18, 2014 at 11:42 pm

Israeli troops told to prepare for wider ground operation

Israeli tank operators move near the Israeli-Gaza border just after Israeli forces escalated their operation with a ground offensive. (Andrew Burton / Getty Images)

Gaza City, Gaza Strip — Israeli troops pushed into Gaza on Friday in a ground offensive that officials said could last up to two weeks as the prime minister ordered the military to prepare for a “significantly” wider campaign.

The assault raised risks of a bloodier conflict amid rising Palestinian civilian casualties and the first Israeli military death — and brought questions of how far Israel will go to cripple Gaza’s Hamas rulers.

Officially, the goal remains to destroy a network of tunnels militants use to infiltrate Israel and attack civilians. In its first day on the ground in Gaza, the military said it took up positions beyond the border, encountered little resistance from Hamas fighters and made steady progress in destroying the tunnels. Military officials said the quick work means that within a day or two, Israeli leaders may already have to decide whether to expand the operation.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had ordered the military to prepare for a “significant expansion” of the ground offensive.

“It is not possible to deal with tunnels only from the air. It needs to be done also from the ground,” he told a special Cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv. “We chose to begin this operation after the other options were exhausted and with the understanding that without the operation, the price we will pay can be very high.”

Frustrated by Hamas’ refusal to accept an Egyptian-brokered truce agreement and the failure of a 10-day campaign of more than 2,000 airstrikes to halt relentless rocket fire on Israeli cities, Israel launched a ground offensive it had been reluctant to undertake to further weaken Hamas militarily.

With calls from Israeli hard-liners to completely crush Hamas, it remains unclear how far Israel will go in an operation that has already killed 274 Palestinians in Gaza, a fifth of them children.

“It won’t end that quickly,” said Yitzhak Aharonovitch, Israel’s minister of public security. “Anything can happen. If we need to keep going, we will keep going. We won’t stop. We need quiet for the citizens of the south and the citizens of Israel.”

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon was to leave Saturday for the Middle East to help mediate the Gaza conflict, Jeffrey Feltman, undersecretary-general for political affairs, said in New York. He spoke at a Security Council emergency meeting Friday, adding that a ceasefire remains “indispensable” for urgently needed humanitarian efforts to succeed.

The Israeli military said it had killed nearly 20 militants in exchanges of fire since the ground offensive started on Thursday night.

Gaza health officials said more than 30 Palestinians have been killed since then, including three young siblings when a tank shell hit their home.

Israel says it is going to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties and blames them on Hamas, accusing it of firing from within residential neighborhoods and using its civilians as shields.

Israeli forces' flares light up the sky in the northern Gaza Strip, Friday, ... (Lefteris Pitarakis / AP)