July 18, 2014 4:00 am

Military prepared for ‘significant expansion’ of Gaza offensive: Israel PM

WATCH: It looked like there was going to be a pause in the Israel-Gaza conflict, but the Israeli army now says it has launched ground operation in the Gaza Strip. Stuart Greer reports.

Latest details:

  • Israel says second phase of Operation Protective Edge has begun
  • At least 240 Palestinians killed in Gaza since July 8
  • UN agency finds rockets in vacant school in Gaza Strip
  • Rehabilitation fire hit by Israeli airstrike
  • Israel PM readies “significant expansion” of ground operation

Israel has begun a major expansion of its operations against militant factions in the Gaza Strip and the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has begun a ground invasion of the Palestinian territory.

The IDF is attacking targets in Hamas-controlled Palestinian territory by land, air and sea, according to Haaretz, while reports indicate there has been a dramatic increase in artillery fire hours after a UN-brokered pause in hostilities.

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Israel’s prime minister says he has ordered the military to prepare for a “significant expansion” of its ground operation against Gaza militants.

The five-hour pause in hostilities, to allow Gazans to gather much-needed goods and supplies, ended with Hamas’ military wing the al-Qassam Brigades and the militant group Islamic Jihad firing a new barrage of rocket fire from the Gaza Strip and the IDF launching retaliatory airstrikes.

Israel said the escalation is the second phase of what it calls Operation Protective Edge.

“In light of Hamas’ unending criminal attacks, and its dangerous incursions into Israeli territory, Israel is forced to defend its citizens. Operation Protective Edge will continue until it achieves its objective – to restore quiet and safety to Israelis for a long time to come, while significantly harming the infrastructure of Hamas and other terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip,” Haaretz reported quoting a statement from the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

At least 240 Palestinians have died as a result of airstrikes throughout Operation Protective Edge, now entering its 11th day. The majority of those killed in Gaza have been civilians, including at least 40 children.

Only one Israeli civilian has been killed as a result of rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.

The IDF said Hamas and the Islamic Jihad have fired more than 1,500 rockets into Israel since July 8, while Israel has hit more than 2,000 targets in the Gaza Strip since the start of the operation.

READ MORE: Hamas, Israel resume attacks after brief truce

WATCH: The Israeli military announced it has launched a ground offensive in Gaza, as air strikes continue to bombard the region

According to the Israeli government statement, the ground operation is to target “tunnels used by terrorists.”

“Such a tunnel was used earlier this morning by Hamas terrorists to enter Israeli territory, with intent to cause massive harm to Israeli civilians,” the statement read.

Early Thursday, the IDF destroyed tunnels from the Gaza Strip into Israel, including one strike where 13 heavily armed Hamas militants trying to enter Israeli territory, near Kibbutz Sufa.

The IDF said it dropped fliers on 14 communities in the Gaza Strip, warning residents to evacuate their homes for their own safety and directed them to assemble in other areas.

READ MORE: Journalists witness Gaza beach attack that killed at least 4 children

Reuters‘ Noah Browning, reporting on the ground in Gaza, tweeted the IDF had hacked the Hamas-run al-Aqsa television channel to warn people in southern Gaza “to flee” their homes.

Residents said the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya came under heavy Israeli shelling.

“There is the sound of tank shells all the time,” said Jamal Abu Samra, 42, a farmer in the area. He said his wife, six children, four brothers and their families were huddling on the ground floor of the family home.

“We don’t have power since the afternoon so we are listing to the (battery-operated) radio to hear the news,” he said.

He said the Israeli military sent text messages to residents urging them to leave the area. Abu Samra said he and his relatives decided to stay because they felt nowhere in Gaza is safe. “It is better to stay home than move anywhere,” he said.

Thousands of soldiers backed by tanks and huge DC9 bulldozers entered the Hamas-ruled territory after 10 p.m. Thursday, Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said.

It’s the first major Israeli ground offensive in Gaza in just over five years.

Lerner said that the operation is open-ended.

“We will be striking the infrastructure,” he said. “We will be striking the operatives in order to safeguard the civilians of the state of Israel especially issues to do with tunneling, that was exemplified earlier today.”

Israel has approved the IDF’s request to call up another 18,000 reservists, in addition to the 48,000 reserves already called up.

Hamas has responded to the escalation in Israeli operations, saying it would retaliate against the assault and Israel would “pay dearly” for its actions, CBS News reported.

Following Hamas’ rejection of an Egyptian-proposed ceasefire this week, Netanyahu vowed Hamas would “pay the price.”

“When there is no cease-fire, our answer is fire,” Netanyahu said Tuesday.

Israeli strike hits Gaza hospital

Palestinian and Israeli media have reported a rehabilitation hospital in Gaza City has been hit by an Israeli airstrike.

The number of people wounded in the strike on the Al Wafa hospital was not known, according to Haaretz. But, the Israeli news agency reported there were 17 patients inside the facility whose medical condition prevented their evacuation.

The hospital’s director, Basman Alashi, told Agence France-Presse Israeli tanks had shelled the facility several times and several floors had been struck.

“They are tearing the hospital apart, bit by bit,” Alashi said. “There is no place safe in Gaza. If a hospital is not safe, where is.”

Israel has repeatedly accused Hamas of putting civilian lives at risk by firing rockets from populated areas, storing artillery in civilian buildings and using a hospital basement as its headquarters.

Those accusations were backed up Thursday with the discovery of approximately 20 rockets stored in an vacant school.

The United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA), which assists civilians in Gazans, discovered the rockets at the school, which the agency maintains as one of its premises.

“This is a flagrant violation of the inviolability of its premises under international law,” a UNRWA statement read. “This incident, which is the first of its kind in Gaza, endangered civilians including staff and put at risk UNRWA’s vital mission to assist and protect Palestine refugees in Gaza.”

The statement added UNRWA contacted “relevant parties” and the rockets were removed to “preserve the safety and security of the school.”

Journalists told to leave hotels

Journalists who have been covering the situation from inside the Gaza Strip have said they were ordered to leave their hotels ahead of an assault from the sea.

Jonathan Miller, a foreign affairs correspondent for Britain’s Channel 4, tweeted he and others were evacuating their hotel after being “warned of an amphibious landing.”

ABC News correspondent Alexander Marquardt tweeted “beachfront hotels were given 30 minutes to evacuate.”

With files from The Associated Press

© Shaw Media, 2014

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