Israeli Forces Move Into Gaza, 'Terrorist Tunnels' In Cross Hairs

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NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on the latest news from the Gaza Strip, where Israel has undertaken a ground invasion against Hamas operatives. It's the first time in five years that the Israeli military has conducted a ground operation.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

About 30 people in the Gaza Strip have been killed since Israel launched its ground offensive last night. That brings the Palestinian death toll to more than 270. One Isreali soldier was killed by friendly fire. This is in addition to the Israeli civilian who was killed earlier in the week. Israel is considering expanding its ground operation, and in a moment, we'll talk with a representative of Hamas in Gaza. But first, to Jerusalem and NPR's Ari Shapiro. And, Ari, after 10 days of airstrikes - explain the rationale for this ground invasion.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this morning that the purpose of this operation is to cut off tunnels that Hamas can use to burrow under the border and enter Israel or move weapons. Israel stopped about a dozen militants coming through such a tunnel into southern Israel yesterday. This is army spokesman Peter Lerner speaking with NPR today.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

PETER LERNER: We have to cut off the line that is entering Israel - cut off those infiltration terrorists tunnels that - their only goal is to create devastating results and death in Israel. It's unacceptable. That is what we are out to stop.

CORNISH: And, Ari, how will the military decide when the operation is done? I mean, does anyone know how many tunnels there are?

SHAPIRO: The answer to that question is really ambiguous. The military says, this mission is defined by a goal, not a timeline. And the goal is Israeli security, which is pretty amorphous. A military official who briefed reporters on background today said, these infiltration tunnels have been a concern of Israel's for several years. But Israel just had not have a chance to do anything about them until now.

CORNISH: At this point, how much actual ground fighting is there?

SHAPIRO: There's not as much as you might expect. There are reports of rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices. But the military official who briefed reporters today said, there are almost no face-to-face battles. These tunnels that the military is targeting tend to be very close to the border with Israel. So they are in more agriculture areas than dense urban neighborhoods. But the invasion was accompanied by heavy aerial attacks putting many Palestinians at risk around the Gaza Strip, where, as you mentioned, more than 2,000 people have already been wounded, including many civilians.

CORNISH: Finally, Ari, President Obama spoke about the crisis today. What was his message?

SHAPIRO: Oh, he said, he spoke to Prime Minister Netanyahu and reaffirmed American support for this operation, saying, no nation should accept rockets being fired into its borders or terrorists tunneling into its territory. But he added a note of caution that the U.S. is worried about escalation. Here's part of what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

BARACK OBAMA: We are hopeful that Israel will continue to approach this process in a way that minimizes civilian casualties and that all of us are working hard to return to the cease-fire that was reached in November of 2012.

CORNISH: And, Ari, lastly, the chances of the cease-fire efforts continuing?

SHAPIRO: People are still talking about a behind-the-scenes, but there is no proposal on the table right now.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Ari Shapiro in Jerusalem. Ari, thank you.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

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