The IDF began a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip on Thursday night with the stated goals of dealing a blow to Hamas’s terrorist infrastructure, including destroying tunnels under the border with Israel, and harming the Hamas military wing.

The decision on the ground offensive was taken by unanimous vote of the security cabinet “several days ago,” said cabinet member Gilad Erdan (Likud). Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnua) said she did not back it lightly, but had no doubt that it was necessary.

“This is the second stage of the operation,” said IDF Spokesman Moti Almoz, referring to Operation Protective Edge, launched 10 days ago to stop Hamas rocket fire. He said large numbers of ground forces, backed by air and sea power and intelligence support, had been despatched to “tackle the [Hamas] tunnels, the terror infrastructure and the operatives.”

The IDF had spent the past few days making final preparations for the ground offensive, he said. “Our forces heading to their goals are determined and full of motivation.”

The IDF spokesman called on residents of Gaza “to evacuate areas where the IDF is operating.”

The ground offensive, he said, would expand as necessary.

A heavy artillery barrage began at around 9.00 p.m. local time and an hour later considerable numbers of troops had moved into the Hamas-controlled territory. Large numbers of infantry, tanks, and military engineers poured into the coastal enclave under the cover of darkness. Multiple flares could be seen floating across the sky lighting the ground below.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon gave the final order to send the forces into action, hours after the IDF thwarted an attempted terror attack via a Hamas tunnel near Kibbutz Sufa. “Through terror tunnels such as these Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israeli territory early this morning with the aim of carrying out mass terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens,” Netanyahu said.

Israeli soldiers seen on Merkava tank near the Gaza border in Southern Israel, on the tenth day of Operation Protective Edge, July 17, 2014. (photo credit: Flash90)

Israeli soldiers seen on Merkava tank near the Gaza border in Southern Israel, on the tenth day of Operation Protective Edge, July 17, 2014. (photo credit: Flash90)

“We are not surprised by the ground operation by Israel,” said Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Channel 2 reported. “It will only complicate the situation.”

According to the IDF, the expansion of Operation Protective Edge “will include close coordination between IDF units including infantry, armored corps, engineer corps, artillery, and intelligence combined with aerial and naval support” as well as support from the Shin Bet and intelligence agencies.

Channel 2 reported that the Israeli Air Force struck a rocket warehouse at the Wafa Hospital in Gaza City, and that the Israeli Navy shelled Gaza’s harbor as well.

Speaking to Al-Jazeera from a Gaza emergency room, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Hamas would remain on the ground, fighting with the people. “We are the stronger in our will, even as we stand alone,” he said, describing Hamas’s ostensible successful operations against Israel.

Barhoum added that the IDF ground invasion of the Gaza Strip “is a dangerous action and the Occupation will pay a dear price for it. Hamas is prepared for this operation.”

The cabinet gave the green light for ground ops after Israel agreed to an Egyptian ceasefire proposal which Hamas rejected and afterward launched rockets at Israel, the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement. It also pointed at Hamas’s abrogation of the five-hour humanitarian truce earlier in the day.

Channel 10 reported that the IDF also asked the cabinet to enable the call up of more army reservists in addition to the 48,000 already approved.

The PMO said Operation Protective Edge would continue until it reaches its objective — returning quiet to the residents of Southern Israel for an extended period of time while inflicting a significant blow to Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups.

Ahead of the assault, the IDF Home Front Command instructed all residents of communities close to Gaza to retreat into shelters.

Journalists in the Gaza Strip tweeted that they had been told by the IDF they had half an hour to abandon their coastal hotels and move inland.

Sporadic rocket fire at southern Israel by Gazan terrorists continued even as the ground operation was underway.

Reports said two rockets were fired out of Lebanon but landed in Syrian territory near the border town of Majdal Shams.

Earlier in the day rocket fire from Gaza resumed as soon as the five-hour humanitarian truce ended at 3.00 p.m.

The IDF also prevented a dawn terror attack after 13 heavily armed Palestinians infiltrated into Israeli territory through a tunnel under the border. The terrorists were attacked by IDF forces as the emerged from the tunnel. Eight were reported killed before the rest made their escape back through the subterranean passage.

Elhanan Miller and Avi Issacharoff contributed to this report.