, GAZA CITY, Aug 18 – Israel warned Friday it could broaden a Gaza ground assault aimed at smashing Hamas’s network of cross-border tunnels, as it intensified attacks that have killed more than 260 Palestinians.
Diplomats stepped up efforts to halt 11 days of bloodshed in and around the battered Gaza Strip while Pope Francis demanded an immediate ceasefire in a phone call with Israeli President Shimon Peres and his Palestinian counterpart Mahmud Abbas.
And Abbas reached out for French help to lobby Hamas allies Qatar and Turkey to pressure the Islamists into accepting a truce during talks in Cairo with Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
In the face of Israel’s land, sea and air offensive that has sent terrified civilians running for cover, the Islamist movement Hamas remained defiant and warned the Jewish state it would “drown in the swamp of Gaza”.
As Gaza residents spoke of a night of terror, with fierce gunbattles in the south and all-night shelling in the north, Netanyahu warned 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.
Immediately afterwards, he convened his security cabinet to discuss plans for a possible expansion of the campaign, which began on July 8 with the aim of stamping out cross-border rocket fire.
Early on Friday, Israel approved the call-up of another 18,000 reservists, taking the total number approved to 65,000, the army said.
The ground operation, which began in the Gaza periphery at around 2000 GMT on Thursday, sent thousands of people fleeing west to escape the fighting along the Gaza border, a UN official told AFP.
“People are fleeing from east to west, away from the border,” he said indicating that so far, around 30,000 people were taking refuge in 27 UN schools and other institutions.
By mid-morning Friday, the road between Gaza City and Khan Yunis was deserted with only a single minibus, packed with passengers, careering south, its windows covered with makeshift white flags, an AFP correspondent said.
During Friday prayers, imams at Gaza’s 1,400 mosques relayed a single message to the faithful: “Be patient and strong, victory will come.”
But it was little comfort for those on the ground.
“All night long they were firing shells, we tried to sleep but we couldn’t … the firing was so intense,” said 39-year-old Ghada Najjar, who was seeking shelter at a UN school in the southern city of Khan Yunis.
“There is some safety here,” she said.
With food supplies running desperately low, the World Food Programme said had already distributed emergency food rations and food vouchers to more than 20,000 displaced people since the conflict erupted on July 8.
But with the ground operation, it was gearing up for a huge increase in the coming days, spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs told reporters in Geneva.
“In the next few days, WFP hopes to reach 85,000 people with food distributions,” she said.
Gaza was also struggling with a 70 percent power outage after electricity lines from Israel were damaged, officials said.
“We usually receive 120 MW and now it is zero,” Fathi Sheikh Khalil, head of Gaza’s electricity company told AFP.
“We asked the Israeli electricity company to repair some lines on their side but they said it’s too dangerous. Now 70 percent of the Gaza Strip is without electricity.”
Since midnight, 26 people have been killed across Gaza by Israeli fire, including three teenagers and a five-month-old baby, raising to 267 the total number of Palestinians killed in the past 11 days.
An Israeli civilian and a soldier have also been killed.
Israel has said the aim of the ground operation is to destroy Hamas’s network of tunnels which are used for cross-border attacks on southern Israel.
On Thursday morning, 13 heavily-armed militants managed to infiltrate southern Israel before being spotted by troops, with one killed in an air strike and the rest fleeing back underground.
“It is not possible to deal with tunnels only from the air, so our soldiers are also doing that on the ground,” Netanyahu said, although he admitted there was “no guarantee of 100 percent success.”
Israel pulled out all of its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005, but within a year it became the de facto seat of Hamas after it won a landslide victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections.
Meanwhile, as Abbas headed to Turkey to further regional ceasefire efforts, Israel said it was pulling out some of its diplomatic staff following violent protests targeting the buildings of its embassy and consulate in Ankara and Istanbul.
Overnight, hundreds attacked the Israeli consulate in Istanbul in a violent show of anger, with police firing tear gas and water cannon at the protesters, an AFP correspondent said.
A similar number of protesters sought to break into the residence of the ambassador in Ankara, but police stood by and did nothing, another correspondent said.