Israel Intensifies Its Campaign Against Gaza

Escalating its conflict with Hamas, Israel began shelling the Gaza Strip on Thursday — clearing the way for ground troops. Israel is targeting tunnels Hamas uses to attack its territory.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

All this morning we're tracking two huge stories. One is the crash of an airliner in Ukraine. The other is the escalation of the conflict in the Middle East. Israeli tanks and ground troops rolled into the Gaza Strip overnight, targeting Hamas militants. NPR's Ari Shapiro is in Jerusalem tracking this story.

Hi, Ari.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Can you describe for us what you're learning?

SHAPIRO: Well, shortly after dark last night, Israel started firing from the land and the sea. The military said that was to clear the way for the invasion. And then, tanks started to roll across the border. People in Gaza reported heavy shelling, much more than in the last few days. Israeli weapons lit up the sky. And the health ministry in Gaza says more than a dozen Palestinians were killed in the fighting overnight. That brings the total Palestinian death toll above 260. One Israeli soldier was also killed overnight. The military says it is looking into the circumstances of that death, and the possibility that it was from friendly fire. That's in addition to the one civilian that Israel reported earlier in the week.

INSKEEP: I suppose we should note, Israeli troops are moving into an area that they moved out of years ago, that Israel doesn't want them to be in. So what is it that Israel wants them to accomplish before they leave?

SHAPIRO: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to the country this morning, and said, this operation is focused on tunnels that Hamas uses to burrow into Israel underground. Netanyahu said, after we discovered we could not take care of Gaza tunnels with airstrikes alone, we launched a ground operation. The military says it stopped about a dozen militants coming through one of those tunnels before dawn yesterday morning. Netanyahu also said today that he has instructed the military to prepare for what he called a possible substantive broadening of the ground operation. And tens of thousands more Israeli reservists are being called up. The military says it's operating on an open timetable here. And, there are real fears on both sides that this ground war could become even more bloody and complicated than the air war we've seen for the last 11 days. Hamas for its part, says the ground operation will be a dangerous, costly step, and that Israel will pay a heavy price.

INSKEEP: All of which happened after a brief ceasing of hostilities for a few hours. Yesterday, a humanitarian cease, the U.N. secretary-general had hoped that that would be used to expand into a cease-fire. That hasn't happened.

SHAPIRO: Correct. A few days ago there was proposal for a long-term cease-fire coming from Egypt. But that fell apart after Hamas said the deal met none of its demands. So since then Hamas spokespeople have been speaking publicly and frequently about what they would need to see in such a long-term agreement. They want the border with Egypt reopened. They want to see the blockade against Gaza lifted, prisoners released, and more. There is international pressure to reach a long-term cease-fire. We're told that Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu before the ground invasion began yesterday. But it is hard to know when a specific proposal to resolve this situation might emerge. This ground invasion could give people more motivation to resolve the situation quickly, or the sides could become more entrenched.

INSKEEP: Let's talk little bit more about that. From where you sit in Jerusalem, Ari Shapiro, do you have a sense of who's being influenced by international pressure, and how?

SHAPIRO: International pressure is an important factor. You hear Israelis talk a lot about how much pressure their government is getting from the international community. And in the past, Israeli-Palestinian clashes have often been resolved once the pressure to end the conflict became too great. Many analysts say that very pressure is one reason Israel held off on the ground invasion until now. Netanyahu even addressed the issue in his remarks this morning. He said, "the world often sees a warped picture of what we are doing, but I believe we have broad international support" is the quote.

Up until this point, the international response has been more muted than we've seen in the past. The U.S. has urged a cease-fire while also supporting what it calls Israel's right to self-defense. There's been a more critical response from some in Europe, and the UN, criticizing Israel for the number of civilian casualties. This will be one thing to watch as the ground invasion unfolds, and the death toll potentially rises even higher.

INSKEEP: We're going to be continuing to follow that story throughout the morning, here on MORNING EDITION. NPR's Ari Shapiro is in Jerusalem.

Ari, thanks.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

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