GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israel’s military says ground forces are crossing the Gaza border in an escalation of Israel’s week-old offensive against the territory’s militant Hamas rulers.
Israeli TV channels are broadcasting images of troops marching into Gaza after nightfall. The military confirmed a ground operation was under way.
Defense officials say around 10,000 soldiers have massed along the border in recent days.
Artillery units joined Israel’s Gaza offensive for the first time Saturday while warplanes and gunboats pounded more than 40 Hamas targets and a mosque where 10 people were killed.
Airstrikes waned during the day but gathered pace after dark Saturday. In a sign that the offensive was entering a new phase, military officials said Israeli artillery units attacked Gaza for the first time, something that could signal a ground invasion is nearing.
“We will do all that is necessary to provide a different reality for southern Israel, which has been under constant attacks for the past eight years,” Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told Channel 2 TV.
Israeli defense officials said some 10,000 troops, including tank, artillery and special operations units, were massed on the Gaza border and prepared to invade. They said top commanders are split over whether to send in ground forces, in part because such an operation could lead to heavy casualties but also because they believe Hamas already has been dealt a heavy blow.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were classified discussions.
At the same time, international cease-fire efforts were also gaining momentum. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is visiting the region next week to try to end the violence, and President George W. Bush and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon both spoke in favor of an internationally monitored truce.
But Hamas, in its first reaction to the proposal on Saturday, reacted coolly to the idea of international monitors.
Israel launched the offensive on Dec. 27 in response to intensifying rocket fire by Hamas militants in Gaza. The operation has killed more than 430 Palestinians, including dozens of civilians, according to Palestinian and U.N. counts. Four Israelis have also been killed, and rocket attacks on southern Israel persist.
The Israeli army would not say when the operation might end, repeating its position that it would continue as long as necessary. But officials confirmed that the number of airstrikes is down, from more than 100 a day in the first days to 60 or so a day now.
The use of artillery fire raised the possibility of higher civilian casualties. Artillery fire is less accurate than the precision-guided bombs and missiles used by the air force.
An artillery shell hit a house in Beit Lahiya after nightfall, wounding many people, said members of the family living there. Ambulances could not immediately reach them because of the resulting fire, they said.
One airstrike hit a mosque in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya, killing 10 people and wounding 33, seven critically, according to a Palestinian health official.
The Israeli army also struck the homes of two Hamas operatives, saying the buildings were used to store weapons and plan attacks. Hamas outposts, training camps and rocket launching sites also were targeted, it said.
The army also struck the American International School, the most prestigious educational institution in Gaza. The school is not connected to the U.S. government, but it teaches an American curriculum in English.
The airstrike demolished the school’s main building and killed a night watchman. Two other Palestinians were killed in a separate airstrike, while four others, including a mid-level militant commander, died of wounds sustained earlier, Gaza health officials said.
Early Saturday, it dropped leaflets in downtown Gaza City ordering people off the streets.
Palestinian militants fired at least 10 rockets into southern Israel, lightly wounding one person, police said. One rocket scored a direct hit on a house in the southern city of Ashkelon and another struck a bomb shelter there, leaving its above-ground entrance scarred by shrapnel.
The Israeli airstrikes have badly damaged Gaza’s infrastructure, knocking out power and water in many areas and raising concerns of a looming humanitarian disaster.
Israel briefly opened its border Friday to allow nearly 300 Palestinians with foreign passports to flee the besieged area. The evacuees told of crippling shortages of water, electricity and medicine.
Maxwell Gaylard, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinians Territories, estimated that a quarter of the Palestinians killed were civilians and a “significant number” of the dead were women and children. He said some 2,000 people have been wounded in the past week.
“There is a critical emergency right now in the Gaza Strip,” he said.
Israel denies there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and has increased its shipments of goods into Gaza. It says it has confined its attacks to militants while trying to prevent civilian casualties.
While ground troops remained poised to enter Gaza, Israel also has left the door open to a diplomatic solution, saying it would accept a cease-fire if it is enforced by international monitors.
This latest round of violence erupted after the expiration of a six-month cease-fire that was repeatedly marred by sporadic rocket attacks on Israel.
Israel’s call for international monitors appeared to be gaining steam.
At the United Nations, Ban urged world leaders to intensify efforts to achieve an immediate cease-fire that includes monitors to enforce the truce and possibly protect Palestinian civilians.
In Washington, Bush on Friday branded the rocket fire an “act of terror” and outlined his own condition for a cease-fire in Gaza, saying no peace deal would be acceptable without monitoring to halt the flow of smuggled weapons to terrorist groups.
“The United States is leading diplomatic efforts to achieve a meaningful cease-fire that is fully respected,” Bush said in his weekly radio address.
The spokesman for the Hamas government in Gaza, Taher Nunu, said the group would not allow Israel or the international community to impose any arrangement, though he left the door open to a negotiated solution.
“Anyone who thinks that the change in the Palestinian arena can be achieved through jet fighters’ bombs and tanks and without dialogue is mistaken,” he said.
With time running out on the Bush presidency, the crisis in Gaza is likely to carry over to President-elect Barack Obama. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice continued telephone diplomacy to arrange a truce, but said she had no plans to make an emergency visit to the region.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delayed a planned trip to the United Nations so he could meet with Sarkozy and a high-level EU delegation on Monday. He now plans on speaking at the U.N. on Tuesday, said Abbas aide Saeb Erekat.
At the U.N., Abbas is expected to urge the Security Council to adopt an Arab draft resolution that would condemn Israel and demand a halt to its bombing campaign in Gaza.
Abbas, whose forces in Gaza were ousted by Hamas in June 2007, still claims authority over the area.
The council is expected to discuss the draft resolution on Monday. But the United States said the draft is “unacceptable” and “unbalanced” because it makes no mention of halting Hamas rocket attacks.
The Israeli offensive has sparked large protests around the world over the past few days. Tens of thousands rallied Saturday in about a dozen European countries against the Israeli action. Some hurled shoes at iron gates near the British prime minister’s residence in London, in an echo of the Iraq journalist who angrily threw his shoes at President George W. Bush while he was visiting Iraq last month.
Tens of thousands of Israeli Arabs demonstrated in the northern town of Sakhnin, by far the biggest protest in Israel so far. Marchers held Palestinian flags and a smattering of green Hamas flags. But there were no reports of violence.