Israel vows to destroy Hamas tunnels, with or without a cease-fire
Jack Guez, Associated Press
JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday that Israel will destroy Hamas' tunnel network in the Gaza Strip designed for deadly attacks inside Israel, "with or without a cease-fire," as the military called up another 16,000 reservists to pursue its campaign against Palestinian militants in the densely-populated territory.
Netanyahu's warning came as international efforts to end the 23-day-old conflict seemed to sputter despite concern over the mounting death toll. More than 1,422 Palestinians have been killed so far, including many civilians, according to Gaza health officials.
The high Palestinian death toll surpasses the number of Palestinians killed in Israel's last major invasion of Gaza in January 2009, when, according to Palestinian rights groups, at least 1,410 people died. Israel had said the aim of that operation was to end Palestinian rocket attacks.
At least 59 Israelis have been killed in this month's fighting, most of them soldiers — also a much higher death toll compared to the 2009 campaign.
"We have neutralized dozens of terror tunnels and we are committed to complete this mission, with or without a cease-fire," Netanyahu said. "Therefore, I will not agree to any offer that does not allow the military to complete this important mission for the security of the people of Israel."
Israel expanded what started July 8 as an aerial campaign against Hamas and widened it into a ground offensive on July 17. Since then, Israel says the campaign has concentrated on destroying cross-border tunnels militants constructed to carry out attacks inside Israeli territory and ending rocket attacks on its cities.
Israel says most of the 32 tunnels it uncovered have now been demolished and that getting rid of the remainder will take no more than a few days.
An Israeli defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to discuss the matter with media, said the purpose of the latest call-up was to provide relief for troops currently on the Gaza firing line. Thursday's call-ups were rotations, leaving the overall number of mobilized Israeli reservists at around 70,000, according to a military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
However, Israeli officials have also said they do not rule out broadening operations in the coming days.
Fifty-six Israeli soldiers and three civilians on the Israeli side have been killed since the offensive began, as Palestinians fired over 2,850 rockets at Israel — some reaching major cities but many intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system — and carried out deadly attacks through tunnels beneath the heavily guarded frontier.
One Israeli was seriously wounded Thursday when a Palestinian rocket exploded in a residential area of Kiryat Gat, the military said. The rocket damaged a house and destroyed several cars parked on the street. Another rocket was intercepted over Tel Aviv by Israel's rocket defense system, the military said.
Israel has said it launched the Gaza operation to try to end relentless rocket fire on its cities from Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups as well as to seek and destroy a network of tunnels Hamas dug to infiltrate Israel for attacks.
Israeli attacks continued Thursday, killing 43 people in the strip.
Gazans said munitions struck the Omar Ibn al-Khatab mosque next to a U.N. school in the northern town of Beit Lahiya. The office of the military spokesman said Palestinian snipers inside the mosque had shot at troops, wounding one Israeli soldier and prompting retaliatory fire.
The strike in Beit Lahiya damaged water tanks on the roof of a building near the mosque, sending shrapnel flying into the adjacent school compound, where dozens of Palestinians displaced by the fighting had taken shelter.
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