Israeli military officials have confirmed the entrance of Israeli ground troops in the Gaza Strip (photo, from aljazeera.net), a week after the offensive against Hamas began.
Shortly after nightfall on Saturday, a column of tanks entered the besieged territory through the Beit Hanoun crossing.
The intention is to take control of areas from which Palestinian militants have been firing rockets into Israel, said an Israeli military spokeswoman.
Ofir Gendelman, an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, said: “All we asking for is to create a normal life for people of Israel. We’ll keep on targeting Hamas objectives until the situation on the ground there is transformed.
“They [Israeli ground forces] will be completing the mission of the air force, going for Hamas headquarters and weapons caches and giving a blow to their capability to launch attacks into Israel.”
“It will take quite a number of days to get the job done”, added Mr Gendelman.
According to witnesses, armoured vehicles crossed into northern Gaza at four separate points, supported by helicopters.
Raid on mosque
Earlier on Saturday, Israel intensified air and artillery attacks on the territory.
At least 13 people were killed in one raid, when a missile struck a crowded mosque in Beit Lahiya, said Palestinian medics. Witnesses said more than 200 people had been inside the Ibrahim al-Maqadna mosque for evening prayers when it was struck.
Israel has accused Hamas of using mosques to hide weapons and ammunition, say correspondents, but this is the first time a mosque has been hit at prayer time.
In the meantime, more rockets were fired into southern Israel by militants in Gaza on Saturday. One rocket hit the port of Ashdod, injuring two people.
In the past eight days, Israel has carried out more than 800 strikes on the Gaza Strip, including 40 on Saturday.
The UN has warned of a worsening humanitarian crisis, that Tzipi Livni, Israeli foreign minister, denied. The UN also believes 25% of more than 400 Palestinians killed by Israel so far were civilians. Israel says about 80% of those killed were Hamas militants. Four Israelis have been killed by rocket fire from Gaza.
After confirming the incursion had begun, an Israeli military spokeswoman said its objective was “to destroy the Hamas terror infrastructure in the area of operations”.
“We are going to take some of the launch areas used by Hamas”, Maj Avital Leibovitch told reporters.
The ground campaign against Hamas “will not be easy or short, but we are determined”, later said defence minister Ehud Barak.
“Our aim is to force Hamas to stop its hostile activities against Israel and Israelis from Gaza, and to bring about a significant change in the situation in the southern part of Israel”, he told a news conference.
“We have carefully weighed all our operations. We are not war-hungry, but we shall not allow a situation in which our towns, villages and civilians are constantly targeted by Hamas.”
Mr Barak added that Israel would “keep a sensitive eye” on its northern border with Lebanon. In 2006 it fought a short but bloody war there with the Shia Hezbollah movement.
“We hope the situation will remain calm. Nevertheless, we are ready and alert to face any unwanted development in that area”, he said.
The BBC’s Paul Wood in Jerusalem says this is probably just the first wave of the assault, since there are said to be some 10,000 Israeli troops and hundreds of tanks massed on the border with Gaza.
The government has ordered the urgent call-up of “tens of thousands” of extra military reservists, has announced the office of the prime minister Ehud Olmert.
A statement was issued by Hamas just before the ground offensive began. The text promised that Palestinian children would be picking over the ruins of Israeli tanks and the body parts of Israeli soldiers.
Khaled Meshaal (photo, from aljazeera.net), the militant group’s exiled political leader, also warned Israel against a ground offensive, saying that a “black destiny” awaited Israeli forces if they entered Gaza.
On Friday, during a speech given from Damascus, the Syrian capital, he said : “You will soon find out that Gaza is the wrath of God.”
“This battle was imposed on us and we are confident we will achieve victory because we have made our preparations.
“Our demand is also clear. The war must end, the siege lifted, and crossing points open without restriction”, he said.
“We will not break, we will not surrender or give in to your conditions”.
According to BBC’s correspondent, this promises to be a very bloody encounter.
Worldwide calls for ceasefire
In the same time, tens of thousands of people have protested worldwide against Israel’s military operations in Gaza, calling for an immediate ceasefire.
The biggest rally took place in Paris : more than 20 000 people gathered.
In London, about 10 000 people joined a rally during which hundreds of shoes were thrown at the entrance to prime minister Gordon Brown’s residence. The aim was to echo the protest of an Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at US president George W Bush last month.
Demonstrators also gathered in Brussels, The Hague, Amsterdam, Ankara and Cyprus.
And in Israel, tens of thousands of Israeli Arabs staged a protest against Israel’s actions in the town of Sakhnin. It had been the biggest demonstration by Israel’s Arab minority in the past 10 years, said Jamal Zahalka, a politician.
Yet, president Bush, firmly blamed the violence on Hamas.