GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israeli troops pushed deeper into Gaza on Friday in a ground offensive that officials said could last up to two weeks as the prime minister told the military to prepare for a "significantly" wider campaign.
The assault raised risks of a bloodier conflict amid escalating Palestinian civilian casualties and the first Israeli military death — and posed questions of how far Israel will go to cripple Gaza's Hamas rulers.
The official goal remains to destroy a network of tunnels militants use to infiltrate Israel and attack civilians. In its first day on the ground in Gaza, the military said it took up positions beyond the border, encountered little resistance from Hamas fighters and made steady progress in destroying the tunnels.
With calls from Israeli hard-liners to completely crush Hamas, it's unclear how far Israel will go in an operation that has led to 299 Palestinian deaths, a fifth of them children, in 11 days of intense Israeli bombardment of the densely populated coastal strip.
"It is not possible to deal with tunnels only from the air. It needs to be done also from the ground," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a special Cabinet meeting 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."
Frustrated by Hamas' refusal to accept an Egypt-brokered truce and the failure of a 10-day campaign of more than 2,000 airstrikes to halt relentless rocket fire on Israeli cities, Israel launched a ground offensive it had previously been reticent to undertake.
In a fresh effort to broker a truce, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was to leave today for the Middle East to help mediate the Gaza conflict, U.N. officials said.