Israel unleashed a devastating show of force in the early hours of Friday with a massive barrage designed to take out a network of tunnels dug from Gaza into Israel.
The Israeli Defence Forces said that 160 aircraft flying simultaneously conducted a 40-minute attack on a network of tunnels dug by Hamas, with 450 missiles dropped on 150 targets in northern Gaza.
After the air strikes were launched, some 500 artillery shells — some flares and some explosives — along with 50 tank shells were fired in a follow-up attack.
It was unclear whether there were any casualties.
The target: The Hamas ‘Metro’ tunnel system in Gaza.— Israel Defense Forces (@IDF) May 14, 2021
The operation: 160 aircraft, tanks, artillery and infantry units along the border.
We struck 150 targets and damaged many kilometers of the Hamas ‘Metro’ network. pic.twitter.com/otn7JKxB9c
At least 115 people have been killed in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian health authorities said on Friday morning, and seven have died in Israel since the conflict exploded into life on Monday, in the most intensive aerial exchanges for years.
Late on Thursday night and into Friday morning, two Israelis were injured in the latest barrage of rocket fire launched from Gaza.
Five rockets landed in the Israeli city of Ashkelon - one of them hit a residential building and seriously injured a 60-year-old man, receiving debris to his stomach. Another man, aged 90, sustained light injuries when he was hit in the head on the way to a bomb shelter.
Officials ordered everyone living within miles of the border to go into bunkers amid fears of fierce retaliation from Hamas.
Fears of an all-out war escalated in the early hours of Friday morning as the military said just after midnight that air and ground forces were attacking the Hamas-run enclave. Rocket barrages from Gaza swiftly followed.
Its statement gave no further details but military affairs correspondents who are briefed by the armed forces said it was not a ground invasion, and that troops were firing artillery from Israel's side of the border, rather than there being boots on the ground.
Residents in northern Gaza, near the Israeli frontier, said they had seen no sign of Israeli ground forces inside the enclave but reported heavy artillery fire and dozens of air strikes.
There was confusion when the Israel Defense Force (IDF) tweeted from its official account on Thursday night: 'IDF air and ground troops are currently attacking in the Gaza Strip.'
This seemed to be reinforced by military spokesman Lt Col Jonathan Conricus, who said: 'There are ground troops attacking in Gaza, together with air forces as well.'
However, the IDF then clarified just two hours later that its troops had not entered the Gaza Strip as it had earlier stated, blaming an 'internal communication' problem for the confusion.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, posted: 'I said that we would charge a very heavy price from Hamas.
'We do it and we will continue to do it with great intensity. The last word was not said and this operation will continue as long as necessary.'
Hamas military spokesman Abu Obeida said the group was not afraid of a ground invasion, saying the move would be a chance 'to increase our catch' of dead or captive soldiers.
It is not yet clear if any offensive will be to destroy rocket sites or Hamas leaders or part of an extended campaign to invade Gaza.
Earlier Israel called up 9,000 reservists to bolster its forces as it deployed troops to the border in preparation for the ground assault.
Relentless air strikes continued to decimate Hamas strongholds in the Strip on Thursday as their brigades held funerals for slain commanders, including the terror boss of Gaza City and their intelligence chief.
As far as I know, until this moment no boots on the ground in Gaza at all.— Muhammad Smiry 🇵🇸 (@MuhammadSmiry) May 14, 2021
But the situation has been very tough last night and until this moment we hear news about new bodies pulled from rubble. pic.twitter.com/J934mU17aW
Meanwhile three rockets were fired from southern Lebanon towards northern Israel but reportedly fell into the Mediterranean without injuring anyone.
Local media said they were fired by one of the Palestinian factions in Lebanon and that it was not the start of Hezbollah getting involved in the conflict.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is facing the prospect of a war on two fronts as internal rioting by Jewish and Arab mobs descended into 'lynchings' in the worst civil unrest for decades.
Hamas requested a ceasefire on a 'mutual basis' late on Wednesday after firing more than 1,600 rockets into densely populated Israeli neighbourhoods, killing seven civilians including a five-year-old boy.
Netanyahu rejected the peace offering despite growing international alarm at the rising civilian death toll after over 600 air strikes on Hamas targets - 103 Palestinians have been killed, including 27 children and 11 women.
Israeli security forces have also been scrambled to contain deadly riots between Jews and Arabs, and projectiles have been fired on Israel from Lebanon.
The United Nations said the Security Council would meet on Sunday to address the conflict, while the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington was 'deeply concerned about the violence in the streets of Israel'.
'We believe that Israelis and Palestinians deserve equal measures of freedom, security, dignity and prosperity,' Blinken said.
The Israeli army clarified early Friday that its troops had not entered the Gaza Strip as it had earlier stated, blaming an 'internal communication' problem for the confusion.
There were intense artillery exchanges on Thursday night, with Israeli troops seen assembling at the security barrier.
Balls of flames rose high into the sky after strikes smashed into densely packed Gaza.
Dozens of rockets were fired from Gaza towards the southern Israeli coastal cities of Ashdod and Ashkelon, and in the vicinity of Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport.
Lt Col Conricus said the country was 'prepared, and continue to prepare for various scenarios', describing a ground offensive as 'one scenario'.
Troops were ordered to the Gaza border on Thursday in 'various stages of preparing ground operations', a military spokesman said, a move which recalls similar incursions during Israel-Gaza wars in 2014 and 2008-2009.
The IDF had said an infantry assault was just 'one scenario' which was being considered as it deployed several units to the border, including the Paratroopers Brigade, Golani Infantry Brigade and 7th Armoured Brigade.
'The campaign is still far from over,' a minister said after a cabinet meeting last night with Netanyahu. 'Whatever we don't do now, we will have to do in six months or a year from now.'
He told Israeli news site Ynet: 'When we have hit all our targets and the other side has still not surrendered, we will launch a ground operation even though we do not seek it.'
Plans for the ground invasion were earlier being drafted for approval by Israeli Defence Force Chief of Staff Lt-Gen Aviv Kohavi later on Thursday, according to the Jerusalem Post. If they get the General's sign off, the plans will be passed on to Netanyahu and his cabinet.
'This will not end in the next few days,' the cabinet minister added. 'Israel will not stop and has no interest in stopping.
'It is all moving in the right direction. We will act until they admit that opening fire was a mistake, just as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah did after the Second Lebanon War in 2006.'
It comes as the U.N. Security Council will publicly discuss the worsening violence between Israel and Palestinian militants on Sunday, diplomats said, reaching a compromise over U.S. objections to a meeting on Friday.
Diplomats said the United States, a close ally of Israel, had initially suggested a virtual public meeting could be held on Tuesday.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday he hoped waiting a few days would allow for 'diplomacy to have some effect and to see if indeed we get a real de-escalation,' adding that Washington was 'open to and supportive of a discussion, an open discussion, at the United Nations.'
Hostilities entered their fifth day overnight, with no sign of abating. Israel fired artillery and mounted more air strikes against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip amid constant rocket fire deep into Israel's commercial centre.
The 15-member council has met privately twice this week about the worst hostilities in the region in years, but has so far been unable to agree on a public statement, diplomats said.
Such statements are agreed to by consensus, and the United States did not believe it would be helpful, they said.
All council members also have to agree to a meeting under rules guiding the body's virtual operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile, the US State Department has urged citizens to 'reconsider travel to Israel' due to the recent surge in violence.
The travel advisory level, which had been lowered in recent weeks due to improvement in the country's Covid-19 situation, was stepped up to Level 3, out of a maximum of four.
'Reconsider travel to Israel due to armed conflict and civil unrest,' the department said in a statement.
'Rockets continue to impact the Gaza periphery and areas across Southern and Central Israel, including Jerusalem,' it said.
'There has been a marked increase in protests and violence throughout Israel.'
Washington was also advising that Americans 'do not travel' to Gaza due to 'Covid-19, terrorism, civil unrest, and armed conflict,' as well as avoiding the West Bank due to pandemic-related travel restrictions.
As Joe Biden and Boris Johnson made appeals for calm, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a forceful partisan condemnation - saying that Israel needed to be taught a 'lesson'.
He told Russia's Vladimir Putin during a phone call of the need for 'the international community to give Israel a strong and deterrent lesson' as he called on the UN to intervene with a 'determined and clear message.'
The appeals fell on deaf ears as Israel and Hamas exchanged cross-border blows throughout the early hours of Thursday - sending Israelis fleeing into air raid shelters, while Palestinians evacuated their apartments.
Among the high-ranking commanders 'neutralised' in strikes on Wednesday were Brigadier General Bassem Issa, chief of the Gaza City Brigades, and Jamal Zabda, head of the group's rocket unit and responsible for the improved accuracy of their projectiles.
The IDF has now launched strikes - 95 per cent of which have been carried out aerially - on more than 700 targets, including militants, infrastructure, missile-launch sites, central banks and administrative buildings key to maintaining power in the Strip.
The military insists the loss of such key Hamas infrastructure will affect the militant group for years to come.
Brigadier General Hidai Zilberman told reporters early Thursday: 'Tonight we started destroying government targets in the Gaza Strip, such as central banks and internal security buildings. Hamas is beginning to discover cracks and there is pressure in the organization, even among the Gaza public who is losing its patience and sees these ruins on the eve of the holiday (Eid).'
Three tower blocks have been levelled in assaults by the Israel Air Force and the Islamists' network of underground tunnels has been decimated by bunker buster bombs.
As well as high-ranking commanders, the IDF say they have killed another 60 Hamas militants.
Funerals for 14 slain Hamas members, including the terror chief Issa, were held at the Omari Grand Mosque in Gaza City on Thursday.
Hundreds of men were seen walking through the streets with the bodies draped in the green flags of Hamas as sobbing women and children watched from windows and balconies.
At the same time, in the Israeli settlement of Eliakim, hundreds of family members and comrades attended the funeral of 21-year-old soldier Omer Tabib.
Tabib was killed close to the border with Gaza on Wednesday by an anti-tank missile fired at his jeep.
'Omer, my beautiful child, six years we waited for you and the patience paid off – we received a beautiful child with an eternal smile on his face,' his mother Tali said, according to Haaretz.
'I refuse to believe that instead of a blessing for your [finishing the army], I'm searching for words to summarise the period of your life. I'm sorry, but I don't know how to do it. In my blackest dreams I never thought I'd reach this point. Omer, my beautiful child, give us the strength to know how to continue on.'
The fighting has sparked violent clashes between Arabs and Jews in Israel, in ugly scenes which have not been witnessed for more than 20 years amid fears of a civil war.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.