Although the statement gave no further details, Israeli military affairs correspondents who are briefed regularly by the armed forces said it was not a ground invasion, and that troops were firing artillery from Israel's side of the border.
Tsahi Daboush, the defense correspondent of Army Radio, tweeted: “When the [Israeli army] says ground troops it means artillery and tanks on the Israeli side of the border with Gaza.”
Rocket barrages from Gaza swiftly followed.
Residents of northern Gaza, near the Israeli frontier, said they had seen no sign of ground troops inside the enclave but reported heavy artillery fire and dozens of air strikes.
Residents said it was among the heaviest bombardments they have ever experienced, rivalling some of the worst nights during the seven-week war in 2014.
“The houses were shaking, they were dancing from the relentless airstrikes and artillery fire,” said Nedal Hamdouna, a freelance Palestinian journalist based in Beit Lahia, that came under heavy fire.
“It’s the worst I can remember, worse than the nights in 2014.”
He said Palestinain families in the north fearing a full scale ground invasion and a massive bombardment against their homes had begun to flee south. Photos taken from the area showed women and children with bags escaping the border areas.
Videos shared with The Independent showed children cowering in their home as the explosions erupted in the background.
Israel said it was massing troops along the Gaza frontier on Thursday and calling up 9,000 reservists ahead of a possible ground invasion of the Hamas-ruled territory.
"I said we would extract a very heavy price from Hamas," Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said in a videotaped statement. "We are doing that, and we will continue to do that with heavy force."