The Israeli military directed heavy artillery fire and dozens of airstrikes into Gaza overnight into Friday, as fears grew that a ground invasion of the territory could be launched to quell rocket fire from Palestinian militants.
As the Israeli bombardment rained down, United Nations officials inside Gaza said dozens of people had fled their homes in the north and east of the enclave to seek refuge in schools – belonging to the UN relief agency for Palestinian refugees – which are considered designated emergency shelters.
Just a few kilometers away, residents in the Israeli town of Ashkelon were fleeing to their bomb shelters again, as sirens wailed warning of a fresh barrage of rockets fired by Palestinian militants from Gaza.
One Israeli woman died overnight after she fell as she was running to a shelter, the Israeli military said Friday, making her the eighth Israeli to die since the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Palestinian militants began exchanging fire on Monday.
Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza has now killed at least 119 people, including 31 children and 19 women, the Gaza-based Palestinian Health Ministry reported Friday. At least 830 people have sustained injuries as a result of Israeli airstrikes this week, the Health Ministry added.
Power went off across much of Gaza overnight as a result of the Israeli bombardment, a correspondent for Palestinian news agency WAFA reported. The Gaza Electricity Distribution Company said there had been serious damage to electricity networks in northern Gaza, as well as in parts of Gaza City and elsewhere.
A CNN producer inside Gaza reported heavy incoming artillery fire from Israeli ground forces near the border as well as dozens of airstrikes.
CNN also spoke by phone Friday with Tariq Al Hillo, 27, from Beit Lahia in Gaza, who described a “terrifying” scene overnight as the buildings around his own block – which is home to six families – were destroyed.
“I can’t even describe it, I don’t know where to start and I’m losing my sanity,” he told CNN. “All the buildings around us were totally destroyed yesterday, we saw shreds everywhere. I can still see them until now, I can still hear women screaming and men crying out loud.”
People believed they would be killed at any moment, he said. “We lost everything around us and we lost safety. I have five sisters, three of them are children between 10 and 15 years old, they were shaking and looking around them traumatized and waiting for their turn to come under the rubble.”
At 2 a.m., he decided they should leave the house to walk to a relatives’ home five or six miles away, Hillo said. “I was not afraid to die but I was afraid that one of my family members would,” he said. “On our way I was telling my sisters to calm down and that nothing will happen to us, but I was shaking and couldn’t even walk because I was terrified.”
On Thursday, Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz warned that Israel has “many, many more targets” and no time limit on its military operations against Gaza.
Israel has called up 7,000 army reservists so far, he added. Most analysts believe that the current build-up of a single division’s worth of armor and infantry is not sufficient to conduct such a major incursion.
Amid the intense Israeli artillery fire into Gaza early Friday, there were reports – later conclusively denied – that the Israeli army had launched a possible ground invasion of the territory.
An army tweet, which said simply “IDF air and ground troops are currently attacking in the Gaza Strip” – which coincided with the start of a sustained new round of artillery and airstrikes – led many news organizations to report that a ground war, much-discussed in Israeli media on Thursday, was underway.
A clarification came about an hour or so later. “There are currently no IDF ground troops inside the Gaza Strip,” IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus told CNN early Friday local time.
IDF chief spokesman Hidai Zilberman had confirmed to Israel Channel 12 News on Thursday that Israel was amassing troops on the border with Gaza in case of a decision by leadership for a ground incursion, but said it would take time.
“With the enemy waving a land campaign, we say: any ground incursion into any area of the Gaza Strip would, by God’s permission, be an opportunity to increase our yield of enemy dead and enemy prisoners,” the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, said in a statement on Thursday.
Tunnel network targeted
At a media briefing Friday, Conricus said the Israeli military was prepared for “various contingencies” and would continue firing on military targets in Gaza while defending Israeli civilians against rockets.
Palestinian militants have fired 1,800 rockets toward Israel since Monday, according to the IDF, of which 430 fell short. Of those, 190 were fired between 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday morning, 30 of them falling short.
Overnight Thursday into Friday, more than 160 Israeli Air Force, infantry, artillery and armored units from 12 different squadrons attacked about 150 targets in underground infrastructure in northern Gaza, the IDF said.
“Many kilometers” of the Hamas ‘Metro’ tunnel network were believed to have been damaged but the exact impact was still being assessed, Conricus said.
Conricus said the number of “enemy combatants” killed was still being assessed but had “risen significantly” since the last update, when the number stood at more than 30.
Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system also intercepted another drone launched from Gaza – the second so far, the IDF said.
In pictures: Israelis and Palestinians endure days of violence
Conflict between Israelis and Palestinians boiled over at the start of the week, fueled by controversy over planned evictions of Palestinian families in Jerusalem and restrictions at a popular East Jerusalem meeting point as Ramadan began. It has since escalated rapidly into one of the worst rounds of violence between the two sides in the last several years.
Rioting and violent clashes between Arab and Jewish citizens have swept across several Israeli cities this week, leading Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to warn against “lynching” by either community.
In Bat Yam, south of Jaffa, graphic video Wednesday night showed a Jewish right-wing mob trying to lynch an Arab driver. Police say the man was dragged from his car before the assault began.
In Acre, north of Haifa, a lynching attempt by an Arab mob left a Jewish man critically wounded, according to Israeli police. A police spokesman said the mob attacked police officers with stones before attacking the victim with stones and iron bars.
Communal violence was also reported in the Israeli cities of Lod, Tiberias, Umm al-Fahm and Hadera.
Efforts at international diplomacy so far appear to have stalled. A UN Security Council meeting on the violence will take place Sunday morning; the US blocked previous Security Council efforts to meet, preferring direct diplomacy on the conflict rather than discussion in an international forum.
CNN’s Hadas Gold and Abeer Salman reported from Jerusalem and ibrahim Dahman from Gaza, while Celine Alkhaldi reported from Amman. CNN’s Eyad Kourdi and Richard Roth contributed to this report.