Israel launches ground offensive against Hamas

Israeli ground forces have entered Gaza, according to Israeli military officials. Tanks and artillery have crossed the border for the first time since the conflict began 8 days ago. Israeli TV reports heavy firefights.

Israeli warplanes, gunboats and artillery units blasted more than 40 Hamas targets on Saturday, including weapons storage facilities, training centres and leaders' homes as Israel's offensive against Gaza's Islamic militant rulers entered a second week.

Israeli officials have said the ground offensive could last a few days but is not for the purpose of reoccupying the area.

“Our aim is to force Hamas to stop the activities of Hamas and bring significant change to the region,” said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak after the start of the ground offensive.

In response to the attacks, a Hamas spokesman said that Gaza will “become a graveyard” for Israeli soldiers.

Israeli airstrikes that had waned during the day gathered pace after dark Saturday.

The UN Security Council has held emergency consultations to address the escalation of violence, but failed to issue any statement regarding the situation in Gaza. After a four-hour debate late on Saturday the US blocked a resolution calling for Israel to immediately halt all military actions in the area.

The president of the UN General Assembly Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann has strongly condemned Israel's ground invasion.

“I think it's a monstrosity. There is no other way to name it. And what is worse, is that once again the world is watching in dismay the dysfunctionality of the Security Council,” he said.

Earlier, Israeli officials allowed dozens of foreigners to flee the fighting in Gaza.

Two planes of the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry have brought 178 people to Moscow. 102 them are Russian citizens and the others are from Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Moldova.

Before that they came to the checkpoint in Gaza on Friday. Not all of them, however, have passed through control, as according to Israel, for security reasons, some of the families had to be separated. These are mainly Russian-Palestinian couples.

After crossing the checkpoint they headed on bus to the Israeli-Jordanian border, from where they will be transported to Amman. Two planes from Russia's Emergencies Ministry are already waiting for the evacuees to fly them back to Russia.

A total of 183 people, half of whom are Russians and the rest from other CIS countries, came to the checkpoint on Friday. Not all of them, however, have passed through control, as according to Israel, for security reasons, some of the families had to be separated. These are mainly Russian-Palestinian couples.

After crossing the checkpoint they headed on bus to the Israeli-Jordanian border, from where they will be transported to Amman. Two planes from Russia's Emergencies Ministry are already waiting for the evacuees to fly them back to Russia.

On Thursday, one airstrike killed a senior Hamas leader – Nizar Rayan – in his home. He was believed to have close ties with the group's military wing.

People show their support to Palestinians

People across the Middle East are showing their support for Gaza and have begun protesting against the Israeli attacks in the region.

In the Iranian capital Tehran, as well as in other Iranian cities, hardline religious students held a march against the Israeli offensive. They filed into the former U.S. embassy in Tehran and burned posters of U.S., Israeli, Egyptian and Saudi leaders.

A series of anti-Israeli actions follow a religious decree by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which stated that anyone killed while defending Palestinians in Gaza would be considered a martyr.

In Ramallah, hundreds marched through the streets in support of their fellow Palestinians. The marchers have called on Israel to end the attacks on Gaza.

There has been strong support in the Fatah-run Palestinian territories for the citizens of Gaza, even though rivaling Hamas is the main political faction in Gaza.

Pro-Gaza demonstrators gathered outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem for a candlelight vigil. They placed hundreds of candles on the ground to spell out the word “Gaza” in both English and Arabic. The protestors said they wanted to highlight the difference in the way the New Year was being marked in Gaza to the rest of the world.

On Friday, people demonstrated outside the Israeli embassy in Moscow against its aggression in Gaza. Those gathered shouted slogans calling on Israel to stop its military operation. Banners were held that read “Murderers! Hands off Palestine!” The unsanctioned meeting was broken up by police and around 40 demonstrators were detained.

The Israeli military operation in Gaza has sparked a wave of protests across the United States – Israel’s traditional ally. On Friday, dozens of pro-peace activists took to the streets of Washington in support of Gaza.

Protests have continued in Europe, India, Australia and South Africa.