The Israeli military has launched the “second stage” of its war against Hamas militants in Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a televised address on Saturday night, warning citizens to prepare for a long struggle ahead.
“In the initial weeks of the war, we launched massive airstrikes that dealt a severe blow to the enemy… We eliminated many terrorists,”the prime minister said in his address.
In three weeks of Israeli air raids, the death toll in Gaza has exceeded 8,000 people, “half of whom are children,” the Health Ministry in the Hamas-controlled Palestinian enclave told AFP early Sunday. It remains unclear how many of the casualties were actual combatants.
“However, we are only at the beginning of the road. The battle within the Gaza Strip will be difficult and long,” Netanyahu warned, while stressing that “this is our second War of Independence. This is our mission, our purpose in life, and together we will prevail.”
The Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) expansion of its operation comes almost three weeks after Hamas militants launched a surprise attack on the Jewish state, hammering Israeli towns and cities with rockets and raiding settlements near the Gaza border. Around 1,400 Israelis have been killed since the war began, and over 200 taken hostage, according to Israeli officials.
“Last night, additional ground forces entered Gaza, marking the beginning of the second stage of the war, whose goal is to destroy the military and political capabilities of Hamas and to bring our kidnapped citizens back,” Netanyahu said.
Israeli warplanes pounded Gaza with airstrikes throughout Friday and Saturday nights, as ground troops and armor were launched in a significant incursion into the Palestinian enclave. It is unclear, however, whether the ongoing “expanded” ground operations will be followed by a larger invasion. There are concerns that a full-scale invasion may result in heavy Israeli casualties and trigger an escalation with other regional players, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said on Saturday that Israel has “moved on to a new phase in the war,” adding that ground operations in Gaza will continue “until new orders are given.”