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Over 20 Palestinians killed

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.

The assault opens a new, potentially extended and bloodier stage in the conflict following a 10-day Israeli campaign of more than 2,000 airstrikes against Gaza that had failed to halt relentless Hamas rocket fire on Israeli cities.

The government said its goal is to stop rocket attacks, destroy the network of Hamas tunnels into Israel and weaken Hamas militarily. But there are calls from hard-liners in Israel to completely crush Hamas and drive it from power in Gaza. That could mean a longer operation with the danger of mounting casualties in a conflict that has already seen at least 265 Palestinians killed in Gaza, around a quarter of them children.

Israel had been reticent about launching a ground offensive for fear of endangering its own soldiers and drawing international condemnation over mounting Palestinian civilian deaths.

But after an attempt by Hamas to infiltrate Israel on Thursday — when 13 armed militants sneaked through a tunnel from Gaza, only to be killed by an airstrike as they emerged inside Israel — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave the order that evening for thousands of troops on standby to enter Gaza.

"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," he said Friday before a special Cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv.

Israel saw its first military death of the conflict in the early hours of the ground assault. The circumstances behind the death of Staff Sgt. Eitan Barak, 20, were not made clear: Hamas's military wing said it ambushed Israeli units in the northern town of Beit Lahiya, but Israeli media said Barak was likely killed by friendly fire. An Israeli civilian died from mortar fire earlier in the week, and several have been wounded.

The Israeli military said it killed nearly 20 militants in exchanges of fire. Gaza health officials said 25 Palestinians have been killed since the ground operation began, including three teenage siblings from the Abu Musallam family who were killed when a tank shell hit their home. At the morgue, one of the victims' faces was blackened by soot and he and his siblings were each wrapped in a white burial shroud.

Their father, Ismail, said the three were sleeping when the shell struck, and that he had to dig them out from under the rubble.

Israel says it is going to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties and blames them on Hamas, accusing it of firing from within residential neighbourhoods and using its civilians as "human shields."

Hamas has survived Israeli offensives in the past, including a major three-week ground operation in January 2009 from which it emerged militarily weaker, but in each case it recovered. The group controls an arsenal of thousands of rockets, some long range and powerful, and it has built a system of underground bunkers.

But Hamas is weaker now than it was during the previous two offensives — from 2008-9 and 2012 — with little international or even regional support, with its main allies Turkey and Qatar largely sidelined by others in the region. Protests against the offensive took place Friday in Jordan, Turkey and the West Bank.

The Canadian Press

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