JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday that he had ordered the army to prepare for a possible expansion of an Israeli ground push into the Gaza Strip as more tanks and infantry streamed into the coastal enclave and Palestinian casualties mounted.
Israeli forces operating across the length of Gaza’s border with Israel advanced up to two miles inside the territory, scouring the area for tunnel networks dug by the militant Islamist group Hamas, military officials said.
There were scattered firefights with militant gunmen, in which 17 were killed, the army said. An Israeli soldier was killed by a tank shell in a friendly-fire incident. He was the second Israeli to die since the start of an offensive against Hamas, which was launched on July 8 to quell rocket fire on Israel.
Despite the Israeli ground thrust, rocket launching from Gaza continued Friday, with fresh volleys fired at the Tel Aviv area. There were no casualties as the incoming projectiles were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.
Intensified Israeli shelling and airstrikes that accompanied the ground invasion caused a sharp rise in the Palestinian casualty toll, with more than 50 people reported killed since the start of the operation Thursday night.
Two brothers and their sister, aged 13, 14 and 15, were killed as they slept when a shell hit their bedroom in the town of Beit Lahiya, their father said. Another two children were killed by shelling in eastern Gaza City, according to local reports.
In the town of Beit Hanoun, eight members of a single family, including a 6-month-old, were killed when their house was struck, Palestinians reported.
Since the start of the Israeli offensive last week, strikes from land, sea and air on hundreds of targets in densely populated Gaza have killed more than 290 Palestinians and injured more than 2,000, according to local health officials. The United Nations said that about 75 percent of the dead were civilians.
Chris Gunness, spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which assists Palestinian refugees, said that more than 47,000 people fleeing the fighting had taken refuge in 43 shelters run by the agency, most of them schools. He said the overall number of displaced people in the Gaza Strip was likely far higher because many people had taken shelter with family and friends.
President Barack Obama said Friday that he had spoken with Netanyahu, reaffirming his support for Israel’s right to defend itself but also cautioning against a broadening of military operations in a way that would increase civilian casualties.
“Although we support military efforts by the Israelis to make sure that rockets are not fired into their territory,” Obama said, “we also have said that our understanding is (that) the current military ground operations are designed to deal with the tunnels, and we are hopeful that Israel will continue to approach this process in a way that minimizes civilian casualties.”
In nationally televised remarks before the weekly meeting of his cabinet, Netanyahu said he had instructed the army “to be prepared for the possibility of a significant expansion of ground operations.”
He said the ground offensive was meant to “hit terror tunnels that penetrate from the Gaza Strip to Israeli territory.” On Thursday the army said it had foiled an infiltration attempt by more than a dozen heavily armed Hamas militants through a cross-border tunnel. Finance Minister Yair Lapid, a member of the Israeli security cabinet, said that the incident had triggered the ground offensive.
Military officials said that forces operating inside Gaza had uncovered at least 10 tunnels that were part of an extensive underground network that connected command centers with rocket-launching sites, and in some cases crossed the border to Israel.
The Israeli ground push was ordered after Hamas rejected an Egyptian cease-fire proposal, saying it was not consulted about its terms. The plan called for a halt to hostilities followed by indirect truce negotiations between the sides, but Hamas said it wanted its demands addressed first.
The group says it wants the lifting of border restrictions imposed by Egypt and Israel on the Gaza Strip, including the opening of the Rafah border crossing between the enclave and Egypt. Hamas also wants Israel to release dozens of former prisoners it re-arrested last month in a crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank after the abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers. Israel blamed the kidnapping on Hamas, although the group did not claim responsibility.
Efforts to broker a cease-fire continued Friday, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meeting Turkish leaders. He was scheduled to continue on to Qatar for further discussions.
Hamas has been cool to mediation by Egypt, whose government is hostile to the Islamist group and has blamed it for the latest escalation in fighting. While Hamas prefers mediation by Turkey or Qatar, Israel has opposed that channel, particularly because of its strained relations with the Turkish government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. On Thursday he accused Israel of committing “systematic genocide” in Gaza.
Israel scaled back its diplomatic representation in Turkey on Friday following violent protests against the Gaza offensive outside the Israeli Embassy in Ankara and the Israeli consulate in Istanbul.
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: email@example.com