JERUSALEM: The Israeli army clarified early Friday that its troops had not entered the Gaza Strip as it had earlier stated, blaming an “internal communication” problem for the confusion.
Just after midnight, the army sent a message to the media saying troops were in the Gaza Strip, and this was confirmed to AFP by the army’s spokesperson.
“Israeli planes and troops on the ground are carrying out an attack in the Gaza Strip,” the Israeli army said in a brief message.
Army spokesman John Conricus confirmed the escalation without specifying the scale of the operation.
“We are prepared, and continue to prepare for various scenarios,” Conricus said, describing a ground offensive as “one scenario.”
Earlier Thursday, Israel said it was massing troops along the Gaza frontier and calling up 9,000 reservists ahead of a possible ground invasion of the Hamas-ruled territory, as the two bitter enemies plunged closer to all-out war.
Visiting a rocket defense battery, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told troops to be prepared for an extended campaign against Hamas. “It will take more time, but ... we will achieve our goal — to restore peace to the state of Israel,” he said.
In Gaza, AFP photographers said people were evacuating their homes in the northeastern part of the enclave ahead of possible Israeli attacks, with Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, warning of a “heavy response” to a possible ground incursion
Two hours later after announcing the entry of ground troops into the Palestinian enclave, the army published a clarification saying there were “no soldiers” in Gaza.
The volence continued nonetheless, with Israel bombarding Gaza with artillery and air strikes on Friday in response to a new barrage of rocket fire from the Hamas-run enclave, in an intensification of a conflict that has now claimed more than 100 Palestinian lives.
Gaza’s Health Ministry said the death toll has climbed to 103 Palestinians, including 27 children and 11 women, with 530 people wounded.
The Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups have confirmed 20 deaths in their ranks, though Israel says that number is much higher. Seven people have been killed in Israel, including a 6-year-old boy.
Israeli security forces have also been scrambled to contain deadly riots between Jews and Arabs, and projectiles have been fired from Lebanon.
Images early Friday showed large balls of flame turning the night sky orange in densely packed Gaza, while rockets were seen tracing through the air towards Israel.
The United Nations said the Security Council would meet on Sunday to address the conflict as the world body's Secretary General called for "an immediate de-escalation and cessation of hostilities".
"Too many innocent civilians have already died," Antonio Guterres tweeted. "This conflict can only increase radicalization and extremism in the whole region."
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington was "deeply concerned about the violence in the streets of Israel", and the State Department urged citizens to "reconsider travel to Israel".
Several international airlines -- including KLM, British Airways, Virgin, Lufthansa and Iberia -- cancelled flights amid the aerial onslaught.
Inside Israel, seven people have been killed since Monday, including one six-year-old, after a rocket struck a family home.
The Israeli military said it had hit targets in Gaza more than 600 times while 1,750 rockets were fired from the enclave.
Hundreds of rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome air defence system.
Three rockets were also fired from southern Lebanon towards Israel, landing in the Mediterranean Sea, Israel's army said.
A source close to Israel's arch-enemy Hezbollah said the Lebanese Shiite group had no link to the incident.
The military escalation was triggered by weekend unrest at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque compound, which is sacred to both Muslims and Jews.
The disturbances, in which riot police had repeatedly clashed with Palestinians, has been driven by anger over the looming evictions of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of east Jerusalem.
The surging tensions sparked clashes in many of Israel's mixed towns where Jews live alongside Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of the country's population.
Nearly 1,000 border police were called in to quell the violence, and more than 400 people were arrested.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said inter-communal violence in multiple towns was at a level not seen for decades, and that police were "literally preventing pogroms".
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said police were increasing their use of force, warning of the "option" of deploying soldiers in towns.
Israeli far-right groups have clashed with security forces and Arab Israelis, with television footage Wednesday showing a far-right mob beating a man they considered an Arab in Bat Yam, near Tel Aviv, leaving him with serious injuries.
In Lod, which has become a flashpoint of Arab-Jewish clashes this week with an Arab resident shot dead and a synagogue torched, a gunman opened fire Thursday at a group of Jews, wounding one.
Netanyahu said the violence was "unacceptable".
"Nothing justifies the lynching of Arabs by Jews, and nothing justifies the lynching of Jews by Arabs," he said, adding Israel was fighting a battle "on two fronts".
The stepped-up fighting came as communal violence in Israel erupted for a fourth night, with Jewish and Arab mobs clashing in the flashpoint town of Lod. The fighting took place despite a bolstered police presence ordered by the nation’s leaders.