Israel’s ground offensive set to last

Israel has launched a ground offensive in Gaza, aimed at curbing militant rocket attacks into Israeli territory. It follows more than a week of intensive air strikes which have targeted Hamas safehouses in the area.

Just after nightfall on Saturday, as many as 10,000 Israeli troops, backed by columns of tanks and F-16 warplanes, crossed into Gaza. Israeli warplanes, gunboats and artillery units blasted more than 40 Hamas targets, including weapons storage facilities, training centres and leaders' homes.

The operation is Israel's largest offensive in Gaza since it left the coastal strip in late 2005 and the Israeli government says it will last some time

“We have carefully weighed all our options, we are not war hungry but we shall not, I repeat we shall not, allow a situation where our towns, villages and civilians are constantly targeted by Hamas,” stressed Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak. “It will not be easy or short but we are determined. We are well aware of the humanitarian aspect and are doing and will continue to do everything possible to provide all humanitarian needs to Gaza”.

For eight days Israeli air strikes hit some 700 targets across Gaza. Israeli officials say the decision to expand the operation into a ground offensive was taken after Hamas refused to stop firing rockets across the border.

“The ground operation that started tonight is designed to increase the pressure on Hamas, on the Hamas military machine so that we can we can reach a situation where the civilian population of southern Israel no longer is on the receiving end of Hamas rockets,” stated Israeli Government spokesman Mark Regev.

But the ground operation has made Hamas even more defiant. It claims Israel has walked into its trap and the coastal strip will become a “graveyard” for Israeli soldiers.

“This is not first time Gaza is facing an invasion. We have already suffered the air offensive and the Resistance faced that campaign and kept fighting. Resistance is competent in guerrilla warfare – so we will never lose. Protecting our leader is not that important to us as protecting the Palestinian people. 61 per cent of them voted for Hamas in the last election,” said Khalid Al Rakhim, Hamas spokesperson.

Palestinian health officials say civilians are among those killed in the hours of heavy artillery fire that preceded the ground operation.

The shells were allegedly intended to detonate Hamas explosive devices and mines planted along the border area before troops marched in. Gun battles could be heard, as soldiers crossed the border into Gaza.

Israel has called up tens of thousands of reservists for fear that Palestinian militants in the West Bank, or Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, could exploit the situation.

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.

A flurry of diplomatic activity is likely to begin on Monday as French president Nicolas Sarkozy visits the region. Foreign ministers from Sweden, the Czech Republic and France are also scheduled to touch down in Jerusalem.