While the UN secretary general called for an immediate end to the operations, the Security Council failed to agree on a resolution calling for a ceasefire after an emergency meeting.

Al Jazeera's Sherine Tadros, reporting from the Shifa hospital in Gaza, said doctors were struggling to cope amid low supplies and the rising number of wounded.

She said the scene was chaotic, with doctors treating the injured on the floor.

In the Gaza Strip, heavy artillery, tracer fire and rockets could be heard while reports said Israeli troops had reached the northern towns of Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun.

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Israeli forces have cut the territory in half and were ringing Gaza City itself, Palestinian witnesses said.

Soldiers and fighters were also locked in gunbattles east of the Hamas stronghold of Zeitoun.

Mohyeldin, reporting from Gaza City said: "Perhaps the most significant military development on the ground is that Gaza has now actually been split into two.

"A column of Israeli tanks and artillery, and armoured personnel vehicles has made its way through from the eastern part of Gaza, reaching as far as the Mediterrannean sea on the Western part, essentially splitting Gaza.
 
"That area, mostly in the former settlement of Nitzerim, it was an open area after Israel withdrew the settlement, so they were able to make strong advances all the way across Gaza, essentially cutting off the northern part from the southern part."
 
Witnesses in eastern Gaza tell Al Jazeera that soldiers have begun house to house operations, moving from building to building. They have also taken positions on top of many of the rooftops in that area.

Casualties

Al Jazeera's Jacky Rowland, reporting from the Israeli side of the border said the  authorities there have been extremely tight-lipped about the operation.

However, the military has confirmed that at least 30 soldiers have been wounded in the fight so far, two of them seriously.

Al Aqsa TV, the station affiliated to Hamas, said the group has captured two Israeli soldiers. This has not been independently verified nor has the Israeli military confirmed it.

"As far as we know, this is not true," a senior army official told reporters.

At least 11 people died in a raid which
hit a mosque in Gaza [AFP]

In initial clashes, Israeli ground forces killed eight Gazans, five of them fighters.

Four Palestinians were killed when a house was struck by an Israeli missile in Rafah, medics and residents said.

Mohyeldin said that the scene in Gaza was one of "fear and terror".

Palestinian medical sources say at least 477 Palestinians have died and more than 2,300 had been injured since Israel began aerial bombardment of Gaza more than a week ago.

Four Israelis have also been killed by Palestinian rockets fired into southern Israel during the past week.

Israel, meanwhile, extended its naval blockade of Gaza early on Sunday, from six nautical miles to 20 nautical miles, preventing humanitarian aid and protest vessels from trying to break the siege.

Around 9,000 military reservists have also been called up to assist in the ground assault.

Hamas warnings

Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister, said on Saturday that the operation was aimed at forcing Hamas "to stop its hostile activities against Israel and bring about significant change".

"We have carefully weighed all our options, we are not war hungry but we should not allow a situation where our towns are constantly targeted by Hamas," he said.

The Israeli defence minister said Israel
had weighed all options before the raids [AFP]
Mark Regev, an Israeli government spokesman, later told Al Jazeera that the "single aim" of the offensive was to halt Hamas rocket attacks into Israeli territory.

"Ultimately Hamas is solely responsible for this crisis and today they are paying a price for that," he said.

Hamas has vowed to defeat the Israeli army following the invasion, with Osama Hamdan, a senior official for Hamas in Beirut, Lebanon, telling Al Jazeera that "military operations will not win for the Israelis".

A spokesman for Hamas's armed wing, the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, said Israeli troops faced death or capture.

"The Zionist enemy must know his battle in Gaza is a losing one," spokesman Abu Ubaida said.

Hamas said it had captured two Israeli soldiers but the Israeli army denied that.

Reservists mobilised

Mohyeldin reports that power lines have been cut throughout the Gaza Strip and more than 250,000 people in the northern part of the territory are without electricity.

"The biggest concern is a ground invasion could result in urban warfare," he said.

"Rockets are being fired from deeper and deeper within Gaza and if Israel's intention is to prevent such attacks how far into Gaza, an area densely populated with civilians, will they need to go?"

Fears of a humanitarian crisis have also grown in recent days, as the strip, home to 1.5 million people, is already suffering shortages of fuel, food and medical supplies due to a two-year economic blockade imposed by Israel.

The International Committee for the Red Cross said on Saturday its medical emergency team had been prevented for a second day from entering the territory.

The UN has warned that there were "critical gaps" in aid reaching Gaza, despite claims from Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister, that there was no crisis and that aid was getting through.

At least 25 per cent of the Palestinians killed since Israel began its aerial assault nine days ago were civilians, the UN has estimated.