THOUSANDS of Israeli troops have made preparations to move into Gaza after Palestinian rockets reached Jerusalem and the shores of Tel Aviv.
Senior members of the military have told The Times that they expect to invade this weekend. One officer confirmed that troops had been ordered to prepare “to the highest state of readiness”.
As the latest crisis escalated in the Middle East, Palestinian militants deployed longer range missiles for the first time. In Gaza City, families sheltered in cellars as Israeli air strikes rocked buildings and war planes created incursion corridors for troops.
Aircraft were reported bombing open land in pre-dawn raids along the border – apparent preparation for a movement of tanks. Nearby roads were closed as artillery units advanced towards the frontier.
“We are creating that corridor, the incursion area for our troops to begin their movement into Gaza when that order is given,” said a senior Israel Defence Forces official in Israel’s southern command. “We are expecting to move this weekend.”
“Our current mobilisation level is such that when the order is given, we can move within the hour,” said another.
The Times witnessed low-loader trucks, sometimes in groups of a dozen, moving tanks on slip roads leading to Gaza. Israeli soldiers laid out spare tank tracks as hundreds of troops were grouped in forward areas near the border. Ehud Barak, Israel’s defence minister, has authorised an additional call-up of soldiers, adding to the 30,000 reservists mobilised earlier in the week. Sources said he had requested government approval for an additional 75,000.
As the stakes were raised by Hamas’s first use of long-range Iranian-built rockets, Mr Barak gave warning that his country would not hesitate to launch a ground incursion and that Israeli troops “will need to go house-to-house”.
Israeli defence officials said the objectives and targets of an expanded operation in Gaza were still unclear. Analysts said that troops would be likely to focus on weapons caches and known Hamas artillery sites. “At the end, they are trying to create deterrence,” said Amir Buhbot, a senior military analyst with the Walla news service.
Hospital spokesmen in Gaza said the death toll reached 23 with at least 300 wounded since an Israeli air strike on Wednesday killed Ahmed al Jaabar, the Hamas military mastermind.
Palestinian officials said the dead in Gaza included 14 civilians, among them seven children and a pregnant woman.
Israeli officials insisted the action was a measured response to weeks of rocket launches from Gaza. “No country would tolerate its civilian population being under this kind of attack,” said Nitzan Chen, spokesman at the Ministry of Public Diplomacy.
A reserve soldier, Gil Chernosky, complained that international pressure during Operation Cast Lead in 2009 prevented Israel from finishing the job in Gaza. More then 1300 Palestinians were killed during that punishing offensive into the Palestinian territory.
“We stopped before we were done and now Palestinians are again firing rockets at our houses,” he said. Rockets from Gaza hit the outskirts of Jerusalem for the first time yesterday. A few hours earlier, another slammed down near Israel’s commercial centre, Tel Aviv, the second day in a row that the city named “the bubble” by residents was shaken by warning sirens and impact booms.
Israeli defence officials confirmed that Hamas was firing Iranian Fajr-5 rockets with a range of more than 50miles. This was a “red line” that Israeli officials had tried to eliminate on the first day of bombing in Gaza.
“We wiped out the majority of their long-range missile ability. Clearly they still have some left but we think that is very limited,” said a ministry official.
A Hamas rocket that evaded Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence shield on Thursday killed three civilians. The defences had brought down 86 incoming rockets by mid-afternoon yesterday.
A visit to Gaza yesterday by Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil was punctuated by explosions, despite undertakings from Israel that it would respect a ceasefire until he left.
An Israeli spokesman denied, via Twitter, that Israel had broken the ceasefire and accused Hamas of using the visit as cover for launching further rockets.
Mr Kandil toured a Gaza hospital where he held the bloodied body of a child and said: “Egypt will spare no effort … to stop the aggression and to achieve a truce.”
Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General of the UN, is to visit Gaza within days to push for a truce as the conflict veers toward all-out war.
The US and Turkey expressed concern last night that the renewed violence would damage the Middle East peace process. “The two leaders shared their concerns about the dangers to civilian populations on both sides and expressed their common desire to see an end to the violence,” the White House said, after President Obama called Recep Erdogan, the Prime Minister of Turkey.
The White House had previously made it clear that it blames the Islamist movement Hamas for the latest round of fighting, urging it to halt the firing of rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory.