Frantic families in Gaza fled advancing Israeli troops by car and on foot yesterday to the sound of booming explosions as infantry supported by tanks thrust farther into the Hamas-run enclave.
Streets remained deserted in Gaza City, capital of the battered and densely populated Palestinian territory, as it was encircled by Israeli forces cutting off the main access roads.
Stores were shuttered and long lines formed outside the few open bakeries, with those residents who decided to stay stocking up on goods for fear of a protracted conflict.
The first night of Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza, which has been blasted with explosives from both air and sea, was sleepless for most of the city’s population as the sounds of war shattered the chilly night air.
Artillery shells rained down along the border, tanks firing in support of advancing infantry units in the northern Gaza Strip, and Hamas retaliated with mortar rounds and by setting off roadside bombs.
“My children are panicked because of the intensity of the bombardments that went on all the night,” Samir Haji, 46, said.
The morning brought only more worry for many in Haji’s neighborhood south of Gaza City as tanks rumbled into the area accompanied by Israeli infantry.
Dozens of tanks and heavy bulldozers rolled into the area near the former Jewish settlement of Netzarim, with air support from Apache helicopter gunships.
“We are shaking like our children,” said Yehia Anis Hussein. “Even before this offensive, it was the blockade that was killing us. This is intolerable.”
Dozens of frantic families fled the area in cars. Some were also seen walking down roads, heading south and away from the advancing troops.
Israel poured ground troops into Gaza late on Saturday, upping a massive week-long bombing campaign of Hamas targets in the territory that the Islamists have run since June 2007.
Flames shot high into the night sky after Israeli warplanes bombed a gas depot near the northern town of Beit Lahiya, sparking a massive explosion.
A huge fire raged at the depot, on a main road through Gaza, which supplies cooking gas to the local population.
Flares streamed into the sky and exploded like fireworks, briefly casting light on the overcrowded territory.
As troops clashed with Hamas fighters on the ground, another battle raged on the airwaves, with Israel breaking into Hamas TV and radio broadcasts.
“Hamas leadership, your time is finished,” one message posted on al-Aqsa television said.
Earlier, the Islamist group’s radio service was interrupted by a male voice in Hebrew-accented Arabic: “Hamas leaders are hiding in the tunnels and are leaving you on the frontline of Israel’s defense forces.”
“Hamas leaders are lying to you and they are hiding in hospitals,” he said. “Launching rockets puts civilians in danger.”
Meanwhile, the UN Security Council failed to agree on a statement calling for an immediate ceasefire in the Gaza Strip after the US argued a return to the situation that existed before Israel’s ground invasion was unacceptable.
After nearly four hours of closed-door consultations late on Saturday, members of the council emerged without reaching agreement that would have asked Israel and Hamas to end eight-day hostilities that have claimed the lives of at least 460 Palestinians.
The meeting was the Security Council’s third since the conflict erupted on Dec. 27.