The IDF fired artillery and mounted extensive air strikes on Friday against a network of Palestinian terror tunnels under Gaza that it dubbed “the Metro,” amid persistent rocket attacks on Israeli towns and cities.
An IDF spokesman said that while ground forces had taken part in the 40-minute, pre-dawn offensive, none had crossed into the Gaza Strip, as hostilities entered their fifth day with no sign of abating.
Rocket barrages on southern Israel swiftly followed the IDF strikes, which the spokesman said included artillery and tank fire from inside Israeli territory.
At least 119 have been killed in Gaza, including 31 children, and 830 others wounded in the current hostilities, Palestinian medical officials said.
The death toll in Israel stood at eight: a soldier patrolling the Gaza border, six Israeli civilians – including a an elderly woman who fell on the way to a shelter early Friday and two children – and an Indian caregiver worker, Israeli authorities said.
In northern and eastern parts of Gaza, the sound of artillery fire and explosions echoed early on Friday. Witnesses said many families living near the border left their homes, some seeking shelter at United Nations-run schools.
IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said 160 aircraft as well as artillery and armored units, “not inside the Gaza Strip,” had taken part in what he called the largest operation against a specific target since the fighting began.
“What we were targeting is an elaborate system of tunnels that spans underneath Gaza, mostly in the north but not limited to, and is a network that the operatives of Hamas use in order to move, in order to hide, for cover,” he said in a briefing to foreign reporters.
“We refer to [it] as the Metro,” he said, adding that a final assessment on the outcome of the operation was pending.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Thursday the campaign “will take more time” and rejected moves for a truce from Hamas, the terror group that rules Gaza. Israeli officials said Hamas must be dealt a strong deterring blow before any ceasefire.
The hostilities have fueled tensions between Israeli Jews and Arabs who live together with them in some cities.
Violence continued overnight in mixed communities of Arabs and Jews. Over the past several days, numerous shuls were attacked and torched and fighting broke out on the streets of some towns, prompting President Reuven Rivlin to express concerns of a looming civil war.
On Thursday, the IDF said it was building up forces on the Gaza border, raising speculation about a possible ground invasion, a move that would recall similar incursions during Gaza wars of 2014 and 2009.
But an invasion looked unlikely, given Israel’s reluctance to risk a sharp increase in military casualties on Hamas turf.
The IDF has put the number of terrorists killed in Israeli attacks at between 80 and 90. It said that so far, some 1,800 rockets have been fired at Israel, of which 430 fell short in the Gaza Strip or malfunctioned.