Israeli commandos storm Gaza in first ground attack
ISRAELI naval commandos clashed with Hamas militants in a raid on the coast of the Gaza Strip yesterday, in what appeared to be the first ground assault of a six-day Israeli offensive on the territory aimed at stopping Palestinian rocket fire.
With aerial support from fighter jets, the Israeli force attacked a site in northern Gaza used to launch long-range rockets, an Israeli military spokesman, Peter Lerner, said.
Militants opened fire, wounding four commandos, but the launch site was hit, he said.
Hamas said its fighters had fired at the Israeli force offshore, preventing them from landing.
Lieutenant-Colonel Lerner said the forces had "completed their mission" and that the results of the raid "would be the first published ground activity" by naval troops in Gaza, in an offensive that Palestinian officials said has killed at least 160 Palestinians, many of them civilians
No Israeli has been killed by Hamas' rocket fire, Reuters said.
Two hours after the announcement of the raid at 1am Greenwich Mean Time (9am Singapore time), militants fired a long-range rocket salvo, with air raid sirens sounding at Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion Airport and some city suburbs.
Israel said a ground invasion of Gaza remains an option, and it has already mobilised about 20,000 reservists to do so, but most attacks have so far been from the air, hitting some 1,200 targets in the territory.
Lt-Col Lerner said Israel would drop leaflets in northern Gaza's Beit Lahiya to urge thousands of residents to evacuate ahead of planned strikes there.
Thousands of Palestinians have fled northern Gaza, AFP reported.
In Beit Lahiya, whole streets were emptying, with residents fleeing with all the belongings they could carry - by car, by donkey- and horse-drawn carts, and on foot.
Islamist Hamas, which dominates Gaza, has fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, striking the deepest into the country.
The Israeli military said more than 800 rockets had been launched since its offensive began on Tuesday. Israel said it has carried out 1,320 attacks on militant targets, half against rocket launch sites, and the rest at command centres, rocket manufacturing installations, warehouses and smuggling tunnels.
The cross-border violence shows no signs of abating despite mounting international pressure on both sides to end the violence. The United Nations Security Council has called for a cessation of hostilities.
Israel says it tries to avoid civilian casualties and accuses Hamas of putting innocent Gaza residents in harm's way by placing weaponry and gunmen in residential areas.
A senior Israeli military officer said aircraft had aborted"hundreds" of strikes to avoid collateral damage and that targets bombed were meant to damage Hamas' fire capacity.