LIANE HANSEN, host:
From NPR News, this is Weekend Edition. I'm Liane Hansen. Israeli troops overnight took control of a substantial portion of the northern Gaza Strip. Backed by tanks and warplanes, they appear to be attempting to surround the dense population center of Gaza City and to divide the territory in half. NPR's Eric Westervelt is at the Israeli border with Gaza. He called in with this report earlier this morning.
ERIC WESTERVELT: Israel says the objective of this military campaign is to stop the rocket and mortar fire, and there's been less of that today. But from where I'm standing here, I've seen several rockets hit the town of Sderot. And just a few minutes ago, there was indirect fire, mortar fire, on a hillside right near me. So while it's less today, Hamas and others have still been able to fire rockets and mortars into towns in southern Israel.
HANSEN: That was Eric Westervelt at the Israel-Gaza border. We're joined now by NPR's Mike Shuster in Jerusalem. Good morning, Mike.
MIKE SHUSTER: Hi, Liane.
HANSEN: What more can you tell us about Israel's ground operations today?
SHUSTER: Well, details are hard to come by. It's not clear how many troops Israel has sent into Gaza, but it looks like several thousand. They've been using tanks extensively. Much of northern Gaza has been covered in white smoke from the explosions for most of this day. The first objective of the incursion appears to be the more open areas of northern Gaza where Israeli military intelligence believes the vast majority of the rockets into Israel are launched from.
The operation near and around Gaza City seems to be aimed at more directly challenging Hamas' ability to be in control there, or to put up resistance. This seems to reflect the differing views of Israel's leaders, with some saying the whole purpose of the operation against Gaza is to end or diminish rocket attacks and others saying it's aimed at destroying or undermining Hamas' ability to maintain control over all of Gaza.
HANSEN: What are you hearing from the people inside Gaza?
SHUSTER: People are traumatized. We're hearing a lot of stories. Many are hiding in basements or whole families huddled in a single room. There are many reports of casualties as a result of tank fire, numerous fatalities at a shopping center in Gaza City, multiple fatalities similarly in Jabalia, which is a refugee camp, and in the town of Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza. The number of dead total in this whole operation is now believed to be over 500. Hospitals, especially, are in chaos. Dozens of newly wounded are presenting what sounds like an insurmountable task for hospitals. They don't have enough rooms, enough equipment, enough medicine, or even enough blood to care for all the wounded. It sounds like a terrible situation.
HANSEN: Mike, to you, does it appear that the Israelis will be content to hold their positions? Or might they push further into Gaza? What are Israeli leaders saying about how long this ground attack could last?
SHUSTER: Well, they're being very cagey about this, and they're not saying much about what the ultimate goal is or how long it might last. There isn't any clarity on it at all at the moment. If what they've done so far doesn't end the rocket fire, which seems to be their most immediate goal - and it hasn't ended the rocket fire, at least today - logic would suggest they'd have to extend the ground invasion deeper into the territory.
If they do push further, especially into the dense urban parts of the territory where they're expected to encounter much more resistance from Hamas, they'll surely need many more troops, and the Israelis will likely take many more casualties under those circumstances. It may be that they have a plan to carve up the territory strategically with the aim of making it impossible for Hamas to communicate and maintain control, but that would imply a longer occupation of the whole territory. And Israel's leaders insist that's not what they want to do. So after a single day of ground operations, we're not sure.
HANSEN: OK, Mike. Thanks very much. That's NPR's Mike Shuster in Jerusalem. Again thank you, Mike.
SHUSTER: You're welcome.
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