Gaza death toll hits 271 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."

He also warned that the operation could yet be widened, amid growing international calls to avoid harm to civilians. "My instructions and those of the defence minister to the military ... is to prepare for the possibility of a significant broadening of the ground activity," he told ministers in Tel Aviv.

At least three Palestinians were killed in fresh Israeli bombing in central and southern Gaza July 18 afternoon, medics said. The deaths brought the toll to 271 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.

An Israeli soldier was killed during the launch July 17 night of land operations on the edges of the Gaza Strip,
raising the death toll on the Israeli side to two, the army said.

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...

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