(ADDS COMMENTS DEFENSE MINISTER, IDF, MORE DETAILS)
By BosNewsLife Chief Middle East Correspondent George Whitten reporting from Israel and Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent at BosNewsLife News Center
JERUSALEM/GAZA CITY (BosNewsLife)– Israel has begun a major ground offensive in the Gaza Strip aimed at destroying the “terrorist infrastructure” of the militant Islamic group Hamas, Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak confirmed late Saturday, January 3.
“It was a difficult decision, but one that had to be taken to stop the Kassam rocket attacks,” from Hamas, Barak said in televised remarks.
He warned that Israel “cannot really accept” a cease-fire with Hamas, rejecting calls by the United Nations and the European Union for a truce after Israeli air strikes killed hundreds of people in Gaza.
“For us to be asked to have a cease-fire with Hamas is like asking you to have a cease-fire with al Qaeda. It’s something we cannot really accept,” Barak told the US television network Fox News from Tel Aviv.
He also said that as a former soldier he understood the human costs and that he realized soldiers will die. However, the decision to enter Gaza, had to be made “and I take full responsibility for the offensive,” he stressed.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said it soldiers began, “to implement the second stage of Operation Cast Lead. Ground forces have begun to maneuver within the Gaza Strip.”
“The objective of this stage of the operation is to destroy the terrorist infrastructure of the Hamas in the precise area of operation, while taking control of some of rocket launching area used by the Hamas in order to greatly reduce the quantity of rockets fired at Israel and Israeli civilians,” the IDF added in a statement monitored by BosNewsLife.
Thousands of troops had been waiting for days outside the border of the Gaza Strip, following more than a week of airstrikes that the Israeli military said were aimed at Hamas in an effort to end rocket attacks against Israel.
Shortly before the offensive began, huge flash of lights could be seen in the dark skies over Gaza City.
CHRISTIANS IN CROSSFIRE
Meanwhile, minority Christians in the territory were believed to hide in their homes, as they have been in the crossfire, suffering from both Islamic militant attacks and Israeli bombardments, church groups said earlier.
Last week, the Gaza Baptist Church was damaged in an Israeli air strike aimed at a nearby police station. Dozens were killed, but it was unclear if any church members were among those who died as the building was already closed for worship services because of the tense situation, sources in the Gaza Strip told BosNewsLife.
There are up to 3,000 Christians in the Gaza Strip, but advocacy group Open Doors said that number may have been reduced to “a few hundred” as many have fled following attacks, including the killing of the director of the Gaza Strip’s only known Christian bookstore, Rami Khader Ayyad, last year.
Ahead of the ground offensive Saturday, January 3, Israel began firing artillery shells into areas along the Gaza border.
In addition, Hamas said Saturday, January 3, that Israel interrupted its radio and television broadcasts in Gaza. “The enemy is trying to break our frequencies… do not listen to this,” said a broadcast on Al-Aqsa radio according to French News Agency (AFP) which monitored it.
ISRAEL INTERRUPTS BROADCASTS
Earlier the radio’s programme was reportedly interrupted with a man’s voice speaking in Hebrew-accented Arabic: “Hamas leaders are hiding in the tunnels and are leaving you on the frontline of Israel’s Defence Forces.” “Hamas leaders are lying to you and they are hiding in hospitals,” he said. “Launching rockets puts civilians in danger.”
A broadcast on Al-Aqsa television was reportedly interrupted with an image of a ringing phone that no one was answering. “Hamas leaders are hiding and they are leaving you on the front line,” said a voice in accented Arabic, AFP reported from the Gaza Strip. The Israeli army did not have immediate comment.
However in a televised address carried by Arab media, further away from the Syrian capital, Damascus, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal warned Israel of entering the Gaza Strip. He said Hamas fighters would be waiting “for you” and warned of a “dark fate” if Israeli troops move into the Gaza Strip.
He added that they would end up killed or captured. Israel’s government said it had no choice but to strike at Hamas militant targets in Gaza, after peace talks with Hamas broke down and the Islamist group stepped up rocket attacks against southern Israel. Four Israelis have been killed in those latest attacks since last week, news reports said. (This is a developing story; stay with BosNewsLife for continues coverage. Are you in Gaza? Are you a church (group) or Christian living in the area? Send us your comments.)