|An Israeli Markava tank runs in the field in southern Israel near the border with Gaza, on the tenth day of Operation Protective Edge, on July 17, 2014. The Israeli military launched a ground offensive on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on Thursday night after days of heavy bombardment, the military said. (Xinhua/Li Rui)
JERUSALEM/GAZA, July 17 (Xinhua) -- Israeli troops launched a ground offensive in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on Thursday night after days of heavy bombardment, the military said.
"Following ten days of Hamas attacks by land, air and sea, and after repeated rejections of offers to de-escalate the situation, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has initiated a ground operation within the Gaza Strip," the IDF said in a statement.
Israeli media said that Israeli helicopter gunships were seen hovering over the northern Gaza Strip, where thousands of Palestinians had been warned by the IDF to stay in shelters or any protected areas.
The ground incursion aims to "establish a reality in which Israeli residents can live in safety and security without continued indiscriminate terror, while striking a significant blow to Hamas' terror infrastructure," the IDF statement said.
The operation is led by the IDF's Southern Command with close coordination between IDF units including infantry, armored corps, engineer corps, artillery, and intelligence combined with aerial and naval support, the statement said.
The Prime Minister's Office said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon instructed the military to embark on the ground operation late on Thursday, which aims to "damage the underground tunnel terrors constructed in Gaza leading into Israeli territory ... such a tunnel was used earlier this morning by Hamas terrorists to enter Israeli territory, with intent to case massive harm to Israeli civilians."
Earlier on Thursday, the IDF thwarted an attempted infiltration by Hamas militants through a tunnel under the Gaza border. The tunnel was quickly destroyed by the Israeli air force. Hamas said all its 13 members in the tunnel had safely evacuated.
Meanwhile, the Islamic Hamas movement said Israel's decision to start a ground operation in Gaza is an irresponsible and dangerous step, for which "the Israeli army will pay a heavy price," a Hamas spokesman said, adding that Hamas is well prepared for the current confrontation.
Israeli media reported that explosions were heard near Waffa hospital in northern Gaza where the IDF believes long-range rockets are stored.
The Israeli ground invasion was launched after fighting resumed along the Gaza border following a temporary ceasefire ended on Thursday afternoon. Earlier on Thursday a UN-brokered five-hour ceasefire took place from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. local time (0700 to 1200 GMT) to let humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip.
Some 105 rockets and mortars have been fired at Israel since the humanitarian truce ended, the Israeli military said, adding that 20 of those rockets were intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile systems. The IDF has since struck 30 targets in the Gaza Strip, including concealed rocket launchers and tunnels.
The escalation came after conflicting reports on the progress of the Egypt-brokered truce talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Reports said earlier on Thursday that a cease-fire agreement had been reached and would come into effect Friday morning, which was later denied by Israel.
Palestinian medical officials said that more than 240 people have been killed, including many children and women, and more than 1,770 injured since July 8, when Israel started Operation Protective Edge in Gaza to end rockets fired by Hamas and other Palestinian groups.