GAZA CITY — Israeli troops pushed deeper into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip as its ground operation aimed at destroying hundreds of underground tunnels picked up steam Friday.
Israel is prepared to undertake a "significant expansion" of its ground offensive, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said as Israel's military released footage showing tanks and soldiers entering Gaza on Friday to locate and destroy the tunnels that, according to Israel, Gaza militants use to store weapons and seek shelter from Israeli airstrikes.
President Obama — who spoke with Netanyahu on Friday evening — encouraged the Israeli leader to minimize civilian deaths in the ground offensive. He said the United States was "deeply concerned" about the violence but reiterated U.S. support of Israel's right to defend itself.
"No nation should accept rockets being fired into its borders," Obama said during a White House news conference. The U.S. understanding is that the ground offensive is primarily targeting tunnels, he said.
The Times of Israel reported that although the Israel Defense Forces — which launched the operation late Thursday — have avoided the densely populated areas of Gaza, troops are set to begin searching the outskirts of urban areas for tunnels, a stage of the operation that may bring soldiers closer to both Hamas fighters and vulnerable Gaza civilians.
"It is not possible to deal with tunnels only from the air. It needs to be done also from the ground," Netanyahu said before a Cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv on Friday. "We chose to begin this operation after the other options were exhausted and with the understanding that without the operation, the price we will pay can be very high."
Like this topic? You may also like these photo galleries:
Since the start of the conflict July 8, more than 274 Palestinians have been killed and more than 2,000 wounded. In Israel, one civilian was killed, and several were wounded.
"The ground offensive does not scare us, and we pledge to drown the occupation army in Gaza mud," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in a statement.
Early Friday, Israel's military said one soldier was killed in northern Gaza, the first Israeli fatality among troops. The circumstances behind the death were not immediately clear. Hamas' military wing said it ambushed Israeli units in the northern town of Beit Lahiya and caused casualties. Israeli media said it was probably a case of friendly fire.
As the conflict drags on, Gaza residents say they are exhausted, scared and caught in the middle.
"The worst thing is when darkness falls, loud explosions deprive us of sleep," said Heba Ahmad, 18, of Gaza CIty. "I'm nervous and scared — we have been abandoned by (Palestinian President) Mahmoud Abbas and by other Arab states — shame on them."
Despite the escalating conflict, analysts say a cease-fire remains likely.
"It's not as if Hamas can truly match Israel, and it's not as if Israel truly wants to occupy Gaza," said David Butter, an analyst specializing in Middle East affairs at the British think-tank Chatham House. "They will find a framework."
Daniel Levy, the director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the London-based European Council for Foreign Relations, expects an "active push" for a cease-fire in the coming days.
"The likely trajectory is that the conflict de-escalates and there is a cease-fire," he said. "That can happen in a couple of days. But it will also become increasingly uncomfortable."
Any agreement ending the hostilities won't come soon enough for Bahjat Maher, 40, of Gaza City.
"We have been locked inside our homes for 10 days," Maher said. "We are exhausted."
Chabin reported from Jerusalem, Dumalaon reported from Berlin. Contributing: Associated Press