idf tank aiming at YOU 248 88 ap.
(photo credit: AP)
As Operation Cast Lead entered its twentieth day Thursday, Palestinians north and south of Gaza City reported hearing explosions and gunfire, and said shells were hitting apartment buildings in the city.
Israeli aircraft struck some 70 targets overnight Wednesday, including weapons positions, rocket squads and a mosque in southern Gaza that it said served as an arsenal, according to the IDF. Palestinian medical officials said seven people were killed in the strikes.
Simultaneously, eleven IDF soldiers were wounded in clashes with Hamas gunmen as fighting escalated in the Strip.
On Wednesday, 22 soldiers were wounded, six of them in the northern Strip when a house collapsed on them, and several others were wounded when an anti-tank missile hit a paratroopers force near Gaza City. The air force later bombed and hit the Hamas cell behind the attack.
The casualties took place as the IDF tightened its grip on Gaza City, pushing deeper into the Shati refugee camp and killing close to 35 Hamas gunmen.
The combat continued despite predictions in the defense establishment that a cease-fire would be implemented in the coming days.
Senior officials in the defense establishment, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, believe the military operations have exhausted themselves and that the time has come for a cease-fire. The assessment in the IDF is that the extensive damage caused to Hamas has restored Israel's deterrence.
"Israel has shown that it is no longer afraid of a confrontation with Hamas," a top defense official said Wednesday. "It will take Hamas years to recover from this operation."
It was unclear whether Israeli forces would immediately withdraw from Gaza once a cease-fire is in place. Egyptian and Palestinian officials were widely quoted as saying that IDF troops would remain in place for 10 days and until details on border security are worked out.
Throughout the day Wednesday, Israel showed no signs of slowing its offensive, striking some 60 targets, including weapons caches, rocket launchers and some 25 smuggling tunnels.
While Hamas is still trying to smuggle weapons into Gaza from Sinai, the IDF believes it has knocked out close to 70 percent of the tunnels under the Philadelphi Corridor. Rocket attacks have also been on a decline, with less than 20 Kassams, Grad-model Katyushas and mortar shells hitting Israel throughout the day.
"Hamas is severely weakened," a top IDF officer said. "Hamas still exists, but its offensive capabilities have been severely weakened."
In one incident in Gaza City on Wednesday, paratroopers near the Shati refugee camp encountered two suicide bombers on their way to blow themselves up next to the troops. One of the bombers was killed as he ran toward the troops and the other was found during searches of a home. Bullets fired at him detonated the belt, but no soldiers were injured.
In a different area of Gaza City, an Engineering Corps force discovered 20 Katyusha rockets inside a home. The rockets were destroyed in a controlled explosion.
AP contributed to this report.