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Israel deepens Gaza push to destroy Hamas tunnels

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Israeli troops pushed deeper into Gaza on Friday to destroy rocket launching sites and tunnels, firing volleys of tank shells and clashing with Palestinian fighters in a high-stakes ground offensive meant to weaken the enclave's Hamas rulers.

Israel launched the operation late Thursday, following a 10-day campaign of more than 2,000 air strikes against Gaza that had failed to halt relentless Hamas rocket fire on Israeli cities.

Israel's first major ground offensive in Gaza in just over five years came as Egyptian cease-fire efforts stalled. Earlier this week, Israel accepted Cairo's offer to halt hostilities, but Hamas refused, demanding that Israel and Egypt first give guarantees to ease the blockade on Gaza.

After thousands of troops had been on standby for several days, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he ordered the military to prepare for a “significant expansion” of the ground offensive.

“Since it is not possible to deal with the tunnels only from the air, our soldiers are doing it also from the ground,” he said in Tel Aviv.

“We chose to begin this operation after the other options were exhausted and with the understanding that without the operation the price we will pay can be very high.”

The wounded were rushed to Gaza's main Shifa Hospital, including several members of the same family struck by shrapnel from tank shells. Among those hurt were a toddler and a boy of elementary school age.

Gaza health officials said at least 20 Palestinians have been killed since the ground operation began, including three teenage siblings killed by shrapnel from a tank shell attack. The Israeli military said it killed 17 militants in different exchanges of fire, while 13 were captured after surrendering.

The Israeli military said one soldier was killed in the northern Gaza Strip, the first Israeli casualty among troops.

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