Gaza death toll hits 260 as Israel launches ground offensive

Israeli soldiers work on their Merkava tanks in an army deployment area near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip on July 12. AFP Photo / Menahem Kahana

Israeli forces backed by tanks and warplanes July 18 pushed into the edges of Gaza in a major operation to destroy Hamas tunnels that the Palestinian Islamist group warned was doomed to fail.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that air strikes alone could not deal a sufficient blow to the militant tunnels riddling Gaza, so a ground assault was needed.
"Last night our forces began a ground operation to hit the terror tunnels crossing from Gaza into Israel's territory," he told a special cabinet session, broadcast live on television.
It is not possible to deal with the tunnels only from the air."

As Israel's offensive against Gaza entered its 11th day, with the army pounding the coastal strip by air and sea as well as from tanks massed along the border, the Palestinian death toll soared to 260.

Civilians were fleeing areas adjoining the border with Israel, with as many as around 30,000 sheltering in United Nations facilities, a U.N. official told AFP.        

"They were shelling from dusk until the early hours of the morning. We've left the eastern front and we're going to a U.N. school," Shejaiya resident Bassil Araeer told AFP.

"There's no water at home, no electricity at home, just shelling and fear and terror," he said.         During the overnight violence, an Israeli soldier was killed and a five-month-old baby was among 19 Palestinian dead.        

Israel said it was pressing ahead with the operation to destroy a network of tunnels that riddle the Gaza strip, used by Palestinian militants to assemble rockets and stage cross-border attacks.

Army spokesman Major Arye Shalicar told AFP that Israel's goal was "to strike Hamas...

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