GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israeli tanks and troops moved into southern Gaza early Wednesday in a new phase of a two-week offensive aimed at militants holding a captured soldier and firing rockets, Palestinians and the military said.
The Israeli military confirmed its forces were operating in southern Gaza, but gave no details.
On Tuesday, Israeli leaders ordered the army to expand the Gaza offensive, moving into areas of the territory they have not yet entered.
Palestinians said they saw Israeli bulldozers leveling farmland and tanks moving across the border near the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis. The military ordered Palestinian security to leave their forward positions in the area.
The Israelis have not entered Khan Younis during the current offensive. Before Tuesday, Israeli forces had entered southern and northern Gaza and have approached Gaza City.
Israel launched its offensive on June 28, three days after Palestinian militants linked to the Hamas-led government captured an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid. The operation was expanded last week to halt Palestinian militants from firing homemade rockets into Israel.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his defense minister, Amir Peretz, ordered the new incursions into Gaza after Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said Monday he would not free the captive soldier, 19-year-old Cpl. Gilad Shalit, security officials said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the operation.
Mashaal called Shalit a prisoner of war and demanded a prisoner swap — which Olmert has ruled out.
Responding to Mashaal’s statement, Shalit’s father, Noam, called on Hamas to allow the Red Cross to visit his son. Under Geneva Conventions, the Red Cross is supposed to have access to prisoners of war.
Israel has demanded the unconditional release of its soldier to end the offensive.
The invasion — Israel’s largest ground operation in Gaza since withdrawing from the area last year — has caused widespread destruction, knocked out much of Gaza’s power supply and left more than 50 Palestinians dead, most of them gunmen. One Israeli soldier has died.
European Union began delivering aid to Gaza in a bid to repair some of the damage. Moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he had received $50 million from the Arab League.
It was the first aid delivered under internationally backed funding restrictions that bypass the Palestinian government led by the militant group Hamas since March.
Officials said the money had bypassed Hamas because of the international boycott. The European Union, along with Israel and the U.S., considers Hamas a terrorist group.
Mohammed Awad, the Palestinian Cabinet secretary, said Hamas agreed to allow Abbas to handle the money. He said the funds would be used to pay civil servants, who have not received salaries in four months.
European Commission said it has started delivering $765,000 in monthly aid to hospitals in the
EU spokeswoman Emma Udwin said the funds — to purchase fuel for emergency generators at Gaza hospitals — was requested by Abbas after Israel destroyed six transformers at a power plant during its Gaza offensive. Gaza now has only sporadic electricity, almost all of it provided by Israel.
In Gaza, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said the area is “on the verge of a genuine humanitarian crisis.”
“There are shortages of food, fuel and essential needs of Palestinian citizens,” he told his Cabinet, calling on the
United Nations, Arab League, Muslim countries and the rest of the international community to help.
Also on Tuesday, a 15-month-old Palestinian boy injured in an Israeli missile strike last month died of his wounds at an Israeli hospital.