Israel air, sea and artillery pounded the Gaza Strip Thursday night, July 17, as IDF ground forces embarked on a ground attack, just announced by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. debkafile reports a softening-up operation to prepare for the entry of armored and infantry units. The IDF calls on the half million Gazans of southern towns of Khan Younes and Rafah to leave their homes for their own safety. Palestinians in northern towns reeived the same message. Israelis living close to the Gaza border were advised to stay in bomb shelters.
The IDF spokesman reported that large infantry and armored units are operating across the entire area of the Gaza Strip.
The announcement from Jerusalem said: "The prime minister and defense minister have instructed the IDF to begin a ground operation tonight in order to hit the terror tunnels from Gaza into Israel."
The IDF said: the ground attack has launched a new phase of Operation Protective Edge for striking a significant blow at Hamas in response to 10 days of attacks by land, sea and air and after repeated rejections of offers to de-escalate the situation.
See the earlier debkafile report below:
Hamas tried sending a commando team through a tunnel snaking under the Gaza border for a large-scale terrorist attack or kidnap early Thursday, July 17. As the group of 13-30 started coming to the surface inside Israel opposite the southern Gaza Strip, it ran into heavy IDF fire. Some were killed; the rest turned tail to escape through the tunnel and reach home. Israeli helicopters bombed the tunnel which exploded, and went on to scour the area around the Gaza Strip for more attempted incursions, through the honeycomb of secret tunnels Hamas has sunk for terrorist attacks and kidnaps.
debkafile quotes Israeli and Western military experts as estimating that the prospects of an Israeli ground incursion into the Gaza Strip are now more real than the chances of a ceasefire. There is little substance to the reports that Hamas and Israeli delegations are in Cairo to discuss various drafts of a ceasefire accord.
Our sources stress that the only real talks revolve around an ultimatum Israel has slapped down for Hamas, via the various would-be peacemakers: It has only days to halt its rocket offensive before Israel launches a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip.
The question being asked now is why, after 10 days of trading Israeli air strikes for Palestinian rocket attacks, the IDF has not destroyed the Hamas war room, the seat of its command and control center for directing the war and launching rockets, instead of striking the vacant homes of Hamas high-ups.
In the absence of a clear battlefield victory, headlines are appearing like this one: "Hamas Has Already Won Its Rocket War With Israel."
Even IDF commanders are noting that the IDF, while hammering the Gaza Strip night after night, has not achieved a single tactical victory. Destroying the Hamas war room would serve this purpose.
debkafile's military and intelligence sources note that finding and destroying underground structures is a daunting challenge, which is why Hamas has sunk its resources for fighting Israel deep below the surface. The war room in particular is a whole town complex, which runs under the surface buildings at the center of Gaza City, including the Shifa Hospital. This labyrinth accommodates top Hamas military personnel, the local social elite made up of Hamas bigwigs, affluent Gazans, foreign citizens and professionals like doctors or engineers.
It has a large and elaborate system of conference rooms, as well as control and command centers, outfitted with air conditioning, its own electricity and communications systems, security, and storerooms for food, drink and medicines to support the hundreds of top personnel operating and sheltering in the facility.
The Hamas underground city can function for weeks without outside help.
The various would-be European peace brokers, including foreign ministers and the Middle East Special Envoy Tony Blair, have been concerned to preserve the Hamas core stronghold, so as to leave the Islamist organization intact at the end of the current round of hostilities as a future negotiating partner and surviving government of the Gaza Strip. Our military sources say that this core stronghold is in fact Hamas’ sunken war room complex.
The Obama administration has been careful to keep its head down and make sure not to be seen or heard until Washington sees where this process is going.
Former Israel Air Force chief, Maj. Gen. Ido Nehushtan, who also led the planning team for a strike on Iran, hinted this week that if the air force and IDF had the capability for destroying the underground nuclear facilities at Fordo, they could also destroy the Hamas underground command center.
When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu saw Wednesday that the cross diplomacy in Cairo had little chance of gong anywhere, he ordered a call-up of 8,000 military reservists in anticipation of the week ahead. The IDF spokesman said: The forces are prepared for ground action. After the Hamas tunnel terror bid was foiled Thursday, a ground operation was seen to be close, as the only effective measure against tunnel warfare.