Israeli artillery pounded northern Gaza on Friday in an attempt to destroy a network of militant tunnels inside the territory, the military said, hours after retracting a statement that it had begun a ground assault on the besieged Palestinian enclave.
Early Friday, the Israeli military briefed the press that it had begun invading Gaza, reporting that their “air and ground troops are currently attacking in the Gaza Strip”, signalling a significant escalation in the conflict.
But little over an hour later the Israeli army clarified that its troops had not entered Gaza and blamed an “internal communication” error.
An Israeli military spokesman said that while ground forces had taken part in the 40-minute, pre-dawn offensive, none had crossed into the Gaza Strip.
"What we were targeting is an elaborate system of tunnels that spans underneath Gaza, mostly in the north but not limited to, and is a network that the operatives of Hamas use in order to move, in order to hide, for cover," Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said in a briefing to foreign reporters.
"We refer to (it) as the Metro," he said, adding that a final assessment on the outcome of the operation was pending.
Invasion could be imminent
The latest Israeli shelling of northern Gaza has brought the front lines closer to densely populated civilian areas, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated an invasion could yet be imminent.
“I said that we will exact a very heavy price from Hamas,” Mr Netanyahu wrote on Facebook, referring to the militant group which controls Gaza.
“We are doing so and will continue to do so with great force. The last word hasn’t been said and this campaign will continue as long as necessary.”
Israeli has massed its forces along the border, calling up 9,000 reservists following days of fighting with Hamas.
Families ‘wiped out’
Palestinians militants have fired some 1,800 rockets and the military has launched more than 600 airstrikes, toppling at least three apartment blocks.
So far at least 119 people have been killed in Gaza, including 31 children and 19 women, and 830 others wounded, Palestinian medical officials said.
In the north, Rafat Tanani, his pregnant wife and four children were killed after an Israeli warplane reduced the building to rubble, residents said.
Sadallah Tanani, a relative, said the family was "wiped out from the population register" without warning. "It was a massacre. My feelings are indescribable," he said.
Other Palestinians living near the northern and eastern frontiers with Israel fled the intense artillery bombardment Friday. Families arrived at the UN-run schools in Gaza city in pick-up trucks, on donkeys and by foot, hauling pillows and pans, blankets and bread.
"We were planning to leave our homes at night, but Israeli jets bombarded us so we had to wait until the morning," said Hedaia Maarouf, who fled with her extended family of 19 people, including 13 children. "We were terrified for our children, who were screaming and shaking."
Meanwhile in Israel eight people have died: a soldier, six Israeli civilians – including an elderly woman who fell on the way to a shelter on Friday and two children – and an Indian worker, Israeli authorities said.
Conflict compared to ‘civil war’
The intensified Israeli attack 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.
Masses of red flames illuminated the skies as the deafening blasts from the outskirts of Gaza City jolted people awake.
More than 400 people were arrested on Thursday after riots by Jews and Arabs erupted in Israeli cities.
Reuven Rivlin, Israel's president, compared the situation to a “civil war”.
Dozens of rockets were fired from Gaza towards the southern Israeli coastal cities of Ashdod and Ashkelon, and in the vicinity of Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport.
Mr Conricus said the country was “prepared, and continue to prepare for various scenarios”, describing a ground offensive as “one scenario”.
Gaza hospitals face ‘total collapse’
In Gaza, witnesses 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.
Doctors are now reallocating Covid intensive care unit beds, just weeks after daily cases and deaths hit record highs.
Hospital operating rooms were emptied, nonessential care suspended and patients having difficulty breathing made a priority, but now doctors are struggling to keep up with patients injured by shelling.
At the Indonesia Hospital in the northern town of Jabaliya, the clinic overflowed after bombs fell nearby.
"Before the military attacks, we had major shortages and could barely manage with the second (virus) wave," said Gaza Health Ministry official Abdelatif al-Hajj.
"Now casualties are coming from all directions, really critical casualties. I fear a total collapse."
There are shortages of equipment and supplies such as blood bags, surgical lamps, anesthesia and antibiotics. Personal protection gear, breathing machines and oxygen tanks remain even scarcer.
Egyptian mediators have travelled to Israel for cease-fire talks that show no signs of progress. Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations are leading the truce efforts.
Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council has responded to the emergency by scheduling an open meeting for Sunday.
The meeting was requested by Norway, China and Tunisia “with broad support”. The three countries had pushed for an open meeting on Friday but the United States said it wanted a delay until Tuesday.
In Washington, President Joe Biden said he spoke with Mr Netanyahu about calming the fighting but also backed the Israeli leader.
"There has not been a significant overreaction,” he said, adding that the aim is to "get to a point where there is a significant reduction in attacks, particularly rocket attacks."
Mr Biden called the effort "a work in progress."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman said rocket fire by Hamas against Israel amounted to "terrorist attacks."
Israel's civil aviation authority said it was directing incoming flights to Tel Aviv to circle offshore when rockets are being fired from Gaza, with pilots choosing whether to divert to Ramon airport in the south or wait until runways are checked for ordnance.
Hamas announced it had fired a rocket at Ramon in a bid to stop all air traffic to Israel.
Several international airlines - including KLM, British Airways, Virgin, Lufthansa and Iberia - cancelled flights in the face of the aerial onslaught.
On Thursday night, the US State Department urged citizens to “reconsider travel to Israel” due to the recent surge in violence.
The travel advisory level, which had been lowered in recent weeks due to improvement in the country's Covid-19 situation, was stepped up to Level 3, out of a maximum of four.