The Israeli military first said late Thursday that its ground forces joined the offensive against Hamas in Gaza, which would have been a major escalation of the conflict that is likely to leave many more dead. But the announcement turned out to be a diversionary tactic that was shortly followed by a targeted attack that destroyed Hamas’ intricate underground tunnel system known as the “Metro.”
The Israeli Defense Forces also targeted a Hamas cyberintelligence storage unit, a military spokesperson said Friday.
On a day that was meant to begin with morning prayers for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, Gaza residents instead found themselves barraged by the sounds of air and artillery strikes and the screams of people discovering their loved ones were killed in the crossfire as Israeli forces tried to target Hamas operatives.
“The sounds of the explosions are tremendous,” said Rushdi Abu Alouf, a 42-year-old reporter in Gaza. “People are running from their homes.”
The IDF announced the attack in a tweet: “IDF air and ground troops are currently attacking in the Gaza Strip.” Amid conflicting statements from the Israeli military on whether or not troops were actually on the ground in Gaza, however, military spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus later said they were not “inside the Gaza Strip” but were instead “carrying out strikes on targets in the Gaza Strip.” Between 3,000 and 4,000 Israeli troops amassed at the border with Palestine had still not moved beyond the border by Friday afternoon.
As the death toll in Gaza climbed to 119, according to health officials there, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a harsh statement vowing not to let up. The IDF recalled 9,000 reservists to back up the effort. Seven Israelis have died in Hamas’ rocket attacks.
“I said that we would charge a very heavy price from Hamas and the rest of the terrorist organizations. We are doing this and we will continue to do so with great force. The last word was not said and this operation will continue as long as it takes to restore peace and security to the state of Israel,” Netanyahu said after the ground operations were announced.
A spokesperson for Hamas responded with a similar threat of force.
Abu Ubaida said in a statement, “In light of the enemy threatening a ground operation, we say: Any ground incursion into any area in the Gaza Strip, God willing, will be an opportunity to increase our yield of the enemy’s dead and prisoners and are ready to teach him harsh lessons with the help of God.”
Israel’s offensive against the largely Muslim nation comes during the Eid al-Fitr holiday, one of the holiest in the faith, which marks the end of Ramadan. Morning prayers for the holiday in Gaza were canceled in light of the intensifying conflict.
Alouf described the scene to The Daily Beast: “About an hour and a half from now, the airstrikes started from the air, the water, and from the planes… sounds of violent explosions, smoke everywhere, about 150 strikes in a matter of 2 or 3 minutes. Lots of families [are] evacuating to UN schools.”
“It’s so difficult. My kids are awake and it’s 2 a.m. in the morning. The kids should be asleep. But I don’t think anyone in Gaza is asleep. The sounds of strikes and explosions are very difficult and no one can sleep tonight. I think it might be one of the hardest nights for Gaza since the war of 2014.”
Both sides have conducted increasing amounts of aerial warfare against one another since fighting erupted Monday, with Hamas firing more than 1,500 rockets at Israel and Israel leveling airstrikes against Hamas, including several Thursday. Israeli officials say they have killed more than 30 Hamas militants and struck more than 600 targets. Palestinian officials 28 children have been killed in Gaza. Hospitals in the region have been overwhelmed by a combination of people wounded in the airstrikes and those infected by COVID-19.
A similar Israeli offensive launched in 2014 left more than 2,000 Palestinians dead. Hamas has controlled the region since 2007.
Though the conflict between Israel and Palestine over territory is nearly as old as the modern state of Israel itself, recent clashes began when Israeli police violently stormed Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the most sacred in Islam, during Ramadan prayers on Monday. Authorities shot stun grenades and tear gas into the mosque. Palestinian activists had planned a protest march, and more than 300 people were injured. More than 200 Palestinians required hospitalization for their injuries. The march came in response to plans by the Israeli government to evict dozens of Palestinians from their home in the eastern area of Jerusalem, which is predominantly Arab, and give the homes to Israelis.
Amid the fighting, mobs have also taken to the streets in Israeli cities in localized bouts of violence that authorities are still struggling to contain.
Despite world leaders calling for an end to the violence, including U.S. President Joe Biden, Israel has signaled it is not quite ready for mediation.
“We are in the middle of our offensive, it is growing more powerful and increasing, because there are a lot of things that we wish to achieve in this operation,” Israeli Settlement Affairs Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said Thursday on Israel’s Army Radio.