Byline: Joshua Mitnick, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
TEL AVIV -- Israel escalated its offensive against Hamas in a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip on Saturday evening, sending columns of soldiers and armor with air cover into the Palestinian enclave for an operation the Israeli defense minister said will not be easy and will not be short.
Until Saturday, Israel had limited its eight-day onslaught to air attacks against hundreds of Hamas targets. Dispatching infantry, tank and combat-engineer forces into Gaza's densely packed neighborhoods to battle Hamas' soldiers ratchets up the risk of casualties on both sides.
The second stage of the offensive is necessary to complete the mission, said Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
The goal is to stop the hostile action from Gaza against Israeli civilians, he said. The ground-force operation involves the endangerment of the lives of the fighters.
Three years after Israel pulled its last soldiers out of the coastal strip of 1.5 million, Mr. Barak told the Israeli public that the return to Gaza would be a difficult operation. At the same time, Israel's government said it had approved the call-up of thousands of combat reservists as reinforcements for the invasion.
An Israeli military spokesman said the goal of the invasion would be to take over the launching grounds of the Katyusha missiles, which have hit Israeli cities that are nearly 30 miles away from the Gaza Strip border.
Palestinian witnesses living in the northern and eastern parts of the Gaza Strip said they could hear the engines of the Israeli tanks and other armored vehicles moving across the border. Hamas' Izz el-Deen al-Qassam military wing predicted that the Israeli soldiers would fall prey to the trap laid by the Islamic militants.
The Zionist enemy will be surprised and will regret carrying out such an operation at such a heavy price, the organization said. Our militants are waiting patiently to confront the soldiers face to face.
In the first week of Israel's military action against Hamas, more than 460 Palestinians were killed, approximately a quarter of whom were civilians, according to the United Nations. About 2,000 were reported injured.
Hamas has responded by sending hundreds of rockets into southern Israel that have killed four Israelis.
In the first hours of the ground offensive, Israel Radio reported that Israeli forces had engaged Hamas militants in gunbattles and killed dozens of Palestinians. A statement from an Israeli army spokesman said the Israeli navy had set up a blockade 20 nautical miles from the Gaza Strip.
The Western-backed Palestinian Authority condemned the Israeli invasion and called for the intervention of the United Nations Security Council. The Israeli aggression on Gaza will have grave consequences for the region, said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, according to Agence France-Presse.
Riyad Mansour, the permanent Palestinian observer to the United Nations, told reporters it was the council's responsibility to bring Israel into compliance and to stop this aggression immediately.
Israel cannot continue to behave as a state above international law. This is the law of the jungle, he said.
The U.N. Security Council ended its meeting late Saturday without reaching an agreement on a statement on the situation in the Gaza Strip, the French ambassador said.
The ambassador, Jean-Maurice Ripert, who presides in the council this month, said members of the body could not agree on a statement that would call for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza, AFP reported.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon earlier Saturday had urged an immediate end to Israel's ground offensive in the Gaza Strip, his press office said just before the Security Council session. …