Menahem Kahana / AFP / Getty Images

Israel prepared to widen Gaza ground offensive

At least 275 Palestinians and two Israelis have been killed as the conflict enters its 11th day

Israeli troops pushed deeper into Gaza on Friday to destroy rocket-launching sites and tunnels, firing volleys of tank shells and clashing with Palestinian fighters in a high-stakes ground offensive meant to weaken the enclave’s Hamas leaders.

Israel launched the operation late Thursday after a deadly 10-day campaign of more than 2,000 airstrikes against Gaza that failed to halt Hamas rocket fire on Israeli cities.

To back up regular forces, Israel said it was calling up 18,000 military reservists, adding to the 30,000 already mobilized.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday that the army was to “prepare for the possibility of significantly widening the ground operation.”

During an address at the White House on Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama said that in a phone call with Netanyahu he underscored U.S. support for Israel and asked that Israeli troops take precaution to minimize civilian casualties.

The death toll in the conflict, approaching its 11th day, has risen to at least 307 Palestinians, including many women and children, and two Israelis.

Israel’s first major ground offensive in Gaza in just over five years came as Egyptian cease-fire efforts stalled. Earlier this week, Tel Aviv accepted Cairo’s plan to halt hostilities. However, Hamas, which wants guarantees that Israel will end its debilitating siege of the Gaza Strip, said it was never presented with truce terms to accept or reject.

Throughout Thursday night, the thud of tank shells echoed across Gaza, often just a few seconds apart. Several explosions from Israeli missile strikes shook high-rise buildings in central Gaza City and sent pillars of smoke into the sky. Palestinian health officials reported multiple civilian deaths and injuries from the strikes.

The wounded were rushed to Gaza’s main Shifa Hospital, including several members of the same family struck by shrapnel from tank shells. Among those hurt were a toddler and a boy of elementary school age, their bloody bodies pocked by small wounds.

The Israeli military said that it killed 17 armed fighters in different exchanges of fire throughout the night and that 13 were captured after surrendering.

“The ground offensive does not scare us, and we pledge to drown the occupation army in Gaza mud,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in a statement.

The Israeli military said one soldier was killed in the northern Gaza Strip, the first Israeli casualty among troops. An Israeli civilian, who was handing out food to soldiers near the Gaza border, was killed Tuesday by shrapnel from a mortar.

The circumstances behind the death of the soldier, Staff Sgt. Eitan Barak, 20, were not immediately clear, with Hamas' military wing saying it ambushed Israeli units in the northern town of Beit Lahiya and caused casualties, while Israeli media said it was likely a case of friendly fire.

Israel's chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Moti Almoz, told Army Radio the military was investigating the circumstances of Barak’s death.

Israeli tanks, infantry and engineering forces were operating in the coastal strip on Friday. Israeli officials have said the goal is to weaken Hamas militarily. However, Hamas has survived previous Israeli offensives, including a deadly three-week ground operation in January 2009 from which it emerged militarily weaker but recovered.

Israeli military officials said soldiers faced little resistance during the first night of the ground operation, but the longer troops remain in Gaza, the greater the risk of heavy casualties on both sides.

Al Jazeera and wire services 

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