A hazy Gaza City is seen in northern Gaza strip early Friday, July 18, 2014. The heavy thud of tank shells, often just seconds apart, echoed across the Gaza Strip early Friday as thousands of Israeli soldiers launched a ground invasion, escalating a 10-day campaign of heavy air bombardments to try to destroy Hamas' rocket-firing abilities and the tunnels militants use to infiltrate Israel. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel on Friday announced its first casualty since the start of a ground operation in Gaza, with one soldier killed following a night of heavy fighting in the Hamas-ruled enclave.
The military said the soldier was killed in the northern Gaza Strip, but the circumstances behind his death were not immediately clear. Hamas' military wing said it ambushed Israeli units in the northern town of Beit Lahiya and caused casualties but Israeli media said it was likely a case of friendly fire between Israeli troops.
Israel intensified its 11-day campaign against Gaza's Hamas rulers by launching a ground operation late Thursday after becoming increasingly exasperated with unrelenting rocket fire from Gaza on its cities, especially following Hamas' rejection of an Egyptian cease-fire plan earlier in the week.
Israel's chief military spokesman Brig. Gen. Moti Almoz told Army Radio "there were a number of points of friction through the night" and said the military was investigating the circumstances behind the soldier's death.
In a statement, the military said it killed 14 militants in a number of exchanges of fire. It targeted rocket launchers, tunnels and more than 100 other targets.
In Gaza City, plumes of black smoke could be seen rising from areas near the border with Israel and explosions could be heard throughout the city.
The military said 50 rockets have been fired at Israel since the start of its ground operation, out of more than 1,500 since the fighting began last week.
Israeli aircraft have struck more than 2,000 targets in Gaza. More than 260 Palestinians have been killed in the air campaign. An Israeli civilian was killed earlier this week.
Israel said it launched an open-ended assault on several fronts, with the primary aim being to destroy underground tunnels into Israel built by Hamas that could be used to carry out attacks.
Earlier Thursday, 13 heavily armed Hamas militants had tried to sneak into Israel through such a tunnel, but were stopped by an airstrike after they emerged some 250 meters (820 feet) inside Israel.
Israeli officials have said the goal is to weaken Hamas militarily and have not addressed the possibility of driving the Islamic militants from power. However, Hamas has survived Israeli offensives in the past, including a major ground operation in January 2009 from which it emerged militarily weaker, but then recovered. Hamas has since assembled thousands of rockets and built a system of underground bunkers.
Israel has been reticent about launching a ground offensive for fear of endangering its own soldiers and drawing international condemnation if more Palestinian civilians are killed.
But Israeli public opinion appears to strongly support the offensive after days of unrelenting rocket fire from Gaza and years of southern Israeli residents living under the threat.
Gaza health officials said 19 Palestinians have been killed since the ground operation began late Thursday.Associated Press