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Israel launches ground assault into Gaza

Israeli troops and tanks invaded the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip late Saturday after eight days of punishing airstrikes failed to halt the militant Palestinian group’s rocket fire into Israel.

Gun battles and explosions could be heard from Gaza City as high-rise buildings shook and artillery rounds lighted the night sky. Columns of tanks and infantry, backed by helicopter gunships, pushed nearly half a mile into the territory from three directions.

Medical authorities in Gaza reported today that five militants and three civilians were killed in the early hours of ground fighting. Israel said 30 of its soldiers and “dozens” of militants were wounded.

Israeli officials said they expected a lengthy battle but did not intend to remain in Gaza.

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“This will not be easy and it will not be short,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said.

Hamas issued a defiant statement saying Gaza would “become a graveyard” for Israeli soldiers. Later, its radio and TV stations went off the air, apparently disrupted by the Israelis.

The ground offensive, involving thousands of soldiers, was aimed primarily at Hamas’ rocket-launching facilities, Israeli officials said. Some of those sites are in open fields, but many are hidden across Gaza in densely populated areas and are difficult to pinpoint from the air.

In choosing to strike from the ground as well as the air, Israel undertook two risks: Its army could get bogged down in a messy fight with a determined paramilitary foe. And Palestinian civilian casualties could rise sharply, increasing international pressure on Israel to halt the operation.

Israel’s airstrikes have already taken a heavy civilian toll. A missile demolished part of a mosque Saturday in the northern town of Beit Lahiya during late afternoon prayers, killing 13 people and wounding 33 inside, a Palestinian medical official reported. Two of the dead were children, he said.

The strikes began Dec. 27, a week after Hamas let an Egypt-brokered truce lapse. The six-month cease-fire had begun to break down in November.

More than 460 Palestinians have been killed in the operation, Palestinian officials say. About one-fourth of them were civilians, according to the United Nations’ tallies.

Yet the rocket fire by Gaza militants has continued. Three Israeli civilians and one soldier have been killed in the last week, as Hamas deployed more advanced, longer-range projectiles capable of hitting Israeli cities more than 20 miles away.

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Hamas fired 29 rockets Saturday before the ground invasion began, Israeli officials said, hitting four homes in southern Israel and wounding three people.

In their defiance, Hamas’ Islamist leaders appear to be gambling that they can withstand an onslaught by the Middle East’s mightiest army and remain in power in Gaza.

Hamas, an Islamic group backed by Iran and whose charter calls for the Jewish state’s destruction, won the Palestinian Authority’s parliamentary elections in early 2006. An attempted unity government with the more secular, moderate Fatah collapsed in June 2007 amid fighting in which Hamas seized full control of Gaza. Afterward, Israel tightened a blockade of the territory.

Israel had unilaterally withdrawn its troops and settlers from the coastal strip in 2005, while retaining control of air, sea and most land access. But its own border communities continued to come under frequent attack by crude rockets fired by Hamas and smaller Palestinian militant groups.

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Weapons buildup

Hamas has been preparing for an all-out Israeli invasion for more than a year. Israeli officials say the group has built a paramilitary force of about 15,000 men, trained in urban warfare and armed with a large number of anti-tank missiles and other weapons.

During the recent cease-fire, Hamas used smuggling tunnels under the border with Egypt to expand its arsenal and fortify its military posts, including a network of underground bunkers, Israeli officials said. Some, but not all, of that infrastructure was damaged by the bombings, they said.

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Israel’s ground offensive began after dark following three hours of artillery fire aimed at blowing up mines Hamas is believed to have placed along the border.

The initial clashes took place in open fields, Israeli officials said. The soldiers did not immediately move into Gaza’s crowded cities, but some were seen before dawn today in Beit Lahiya.

The soldiers wore night-vision goggles on their helmets and camouflage paint on their faces.

Israel’s Channel 10 television said several thousand gunmen representing all of Gaza’s smaller militant factions had joined in the fighting.

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Military analysts said they expected Hamas to seek to draw the fight to the 140-square-mile territory’s urban areas.

“Our soldiers will face small cells that know they cannot match the army’s force,” Shmuel Zakai, a retired brigadier general and former commander of the army’s Gaza division, told Channel 10 television. “Hamas will use other tactics to try to inflict as many casualties as possible.”

The military’s announcement set a limited goal -- taking control of “some of the rocket launching areas” used by Hamas and to “greatly reduce” the quantity of rockets fired at Israeli civilians.

In doing so, Israel appeared to give itself an exit strategy in the event the military offensive gets bogged down. Israeli leaders want to avoid a repeat of the 2006 war against Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, which fought Israel to a demoralizing 34-day stalemate and made the Jewish state look weak in the eyes of other Arab foes.

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Israeli officials said the aim in Gaza was not to overthrow Hamas or even to eliminate its capacity to fire rockets, but rather to crush its motivation for doing so. Some Israeli analysts and experts said this could be accomplished by a brief but powerful ground operation.

“Since the name of the game is killing and destruction, the ground operation has to be quick, with a lot of firepower at friction points with Hamas,” Alex Fishman, military analyst of the newspaper Yediot Aharonot, wrote Friday. “The goal is to exact a high price in the early stages of the ground operation and to end it quickly.”

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‘Many targets’

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But as the ground offensive began, Israeli officials announced that they had ordered a call-up of tens of thousands of reservists and said the fighting could take time.

“We have many, many targets,” said Maj. Avital Leibovich, an Israeli army spokeswoman. “To my estimation, it will be a lengthy operation.”

Tzachi Hanegbi, chairman of the Israeli parliament’s security and foreign affairs committee, said, “No one is holding a stopwatch. There is no need to rush.”

Israel has resisted international pressure to end the offensive. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rebuffed a French cease-fire proposal.

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Since then, diplomatic efforts have focused on the idea of an internationally monitored truce.

Olmert said last week that Israel wanted guarantees that Hamas would not only stop firing rockets but also stop smuggling in components to make new ones.

President Bush and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have since spoken in favor of the idea, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy was expected to visit Israel on Monday to discuss it.

Hamas has reacted coolly. A spokesman, Taher Nunu, said the group would not allow Israel or the international community to impose any arrangement. But he indicated that Hamas remained open to a negotiated solution.

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Israeli officials say they want the ground offensive to continue until details of any monitoring arrangement are worked out.

But international pressure is building to end the operation sooner. Ban called for an immediate cease-fire, and the U.N. Security Council met in an emergency session Saturday night. The session ended, however, with no agreement announced.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said a cease-fire “should take place as soon as possible, but we need a cease-fire that is durable, sustainable, and not time-limited.”

He repeated criticism of Hamas’ rocket attacks and said the militant group had “contributed deeply to a very bad daily life for the Palestinian people in Gaza.” But McCormack said the United States had expressed concerns to Israel that military action be mindful of possible harm to civilians.

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President-elect Barack Obama made no direct comment Saturday. Brooke Anderson, a spokeswoman for his transition team, said, “The president-elect is closely monitoring global events, including the situation in Gaza. There is one president at a time, and we intend to respect that.”

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Demonstrations

Tens of thousands of protesters rallied Saturday in cities across Europe to demand an end to the Israeli action. In London, some hurled shoes at iron gates near the British prime minister’s residence, in an echo of the Iraqi journalist who angrily threw his shoes at Bush during the president’s visit to Iraq last month.

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In Israel, more than 40,000 Israeli Arabs demonstrated in the northern town of Sakhnin, the biggest protest in Israel against the bloodshed. They held banners demanding that Olmert and other Israeli leaders be tried for war crimes. Some carried Hamas banners. No violence was reported.

Two groups of demonstrators, one for and the other against the Gaza invasion, held rallies in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square as police struggled to keep them apart.

Wary of the risks of civilian casualties in Gaza, the Israeli air force dropped thousands of leaflets over Gaza warning people to leave buildings in areas apparently to be targeted. The military called telephone numbers in Gaza with the same message, prerecorded in Arabic.

The military warned that it would hold Hamas responsible for the deaths of civilians that it said were being used as “human shields” for the group’s urban hide-outs.

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In recent days, the air force had begun targeting individual Hamas leaders. On Saturday an airstrike killed Abu Zakaria Jammal, a senior commander of Hamas’ armed wing, as he was driving in Gaza City.

At least 14 Palestinians, including five civilians, died in other airstrikes Saturday, in addition to those killed in the mosque, according to medical authorities in Gaza.

Israel’s navy also took part in the offensive, targeting the Hamas intelligence headquarters in Gaza City along with outposts, training camps and rocket launch sites along the Mediterranean coast. It enforced a blockade for 20 miles out from Gaza’s shores.

An airstrike demolished the main building of the American International School in Beit Lahiya, killing a watchman. The school, which is not connected to the U.S. government, teaches an American curriculum in English and is considered the most prestigious educational institution in Gaza.

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boudreaux@latimes.com

Special correspondent Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.


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