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The IDF will likely expand its operations in the Gaza Strip in the coming days in an effort to press Egypt to declare its readiness to stop the weapons smuggling from the Sinai Peninsula into Gaza, defense officials said Saturday.
The IDF is currently operating in the northern Gaza Strip but on Saturday, the air force dropped leaflets throughout Gaza warning residents of an impending expansion of the operation.
One possibility is that the IDF will move deeper into Gaza City. Another possibility is that the IDF will push into southern Gaza.
"The IDF will escalate the operation in the Gaza Strip," the leaflets read in Arabic. "The IDF is not working against the people of Gaza but against Hamas and the terrorists only. Stay safe by following our orders."
The leaflets urged Gazans not to help Hamas, and to stay away from its members.
As Operation Cast Lead entered its third week, senior military sources expressed concern that if the political echelon did not immediately decide on its future direction, IDF soldiers would become static targets and lose the initiative to Hamas.
"The troops cannot just stand and wait," one officer explained. "They always need to be on the move."
On Monday, head of the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Security Bureau, Amos Gilad, is scheduled to travel to Cairo for talks with the Egyptians about the weapons smuggling, which Israel insists must be stopped before it ends the Gaza offensive.
"The Egyptians understand that they need to deal with the smuggling," a senior official said. "While in public they deny that the weapons come into Gaza through the tunnels, in private they recognize that this is the truth."
On Saturday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit to advance the issue. Steinmeier is to come to Tel Aviv on Sunday and meet with Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
Officials said that Steinmeier would likely arrive with positive impressions from his talks in Cairo, where he received the impression that the Egyptians were willing to begin confronting the tunnel industry in Rafah.
The officials said that Egypt was not likely to agree to the deployment of a multinational or American force along its border with Gaza or even sign a memorandum of understanding with Israel regarding the tunnels.
"Both of these initiatives would be interpreted as signs of weakness by people who oppose the regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt," another defense official said.
What was likely to happen, the officials said, was that the Egyptians would receive technical support from foreign countries in detecting the tunnels. The US has already sent combat engineers to advise the Egyptians and the Germans have offered them equipment as well.
On Saturday, the air force bombed a rocket squad and killed Amir Mansi, a senior member of Hamas's military wing, Izzadin Kassam, and commander of its rocket division in Gaza City.
Mansi was behind dozens of rocket attacks against Israel in recent weeks, a senior IDF officer said. Mansi had close ties to Hizbullah, and was known to receive information from the group on a regular basis, including learning how to fire rockets, the officer added.
Mansi was killed while attempting to fire mortars at troops in Jebl Rice, in the northern Gaza Strip. Two other Hamas gunmen were also hit.
The IDF officer said the fact that Mansi was personally involved in attacking Israeli troops showed that Izzadin Kassam was in "serious distress," as senior Hamas operatives would not ordinarily venture onto the battlefield.
Entire Hamas companies had been wiped out, and some Hamas fighters had gone AWOL or fled the fighting, the officer said.
"We know of complete battalions that have just been erased," the top officer said. "They are afraid to come out and fight. That's why Mansi went out to fire rockets on his own."
The officer also said that Hamas had replicated the "nature reserves" - including tunnel systems and rocket launchers - that the IDF found in southern Lebanon in 2006, this time within built-up areas in Gaza City.
The group had built the tunnels so that if the IDF penetrated further into the city, it would encounter hand-to-hand resistance.
According to the officer, at least 300 Hamas gunmen had been killed since the ground forces stage of Operation Cast Lead began eight days ago. The IDF estimate, he said, was backed up by intelligence.
On Saturday, the Palestinian death toll since Operation Cast Lead began on December 27 passed 800.
Ten IDF soldiers have been killed since the operation began, nine in Gaza fighting and one in a Hamas mortar strike on the IDF base at Nahal Oz. Three Israeli civilians have been killed.
Twenty-three rockets were fired at the South on Saturday. Two that fell in Ashkelon left one person moderately wounded, three people lightly hurt, and caused extensive damage to homes.
Some 20 soldiers were lightly wounded in fighting over the weekend.
More than 15 terrorists were killed overnight Friday, the IDF said. Aircraft attacked more than 40 targets, including 10 rocket-launching sites, weapons-storage facilities, smuggling tunnels, an anti-aircraft missile launcher and gunmen.
The dropping of the leaflets appeared to be partly a psychological tactic. Defense officials are prepared for a third stage of the offensive, in which soldiers would push much further into Gaza, but are waiting for approval from the government.
The officials said the army had also planned a fourth stage that called for a full reoccupation of Gaza and toppling Hamas.
On Saturday night, IDF infantry, tanks, artillery, engineers and intelligence branch personnel were engaging Hamas gunmen. Snipers fired at soldiers from the Paratroopers Brigade. The troops fired back and reported a hit.
Mortar shells were fired at soldiers. Troops returned mortar fire.
Between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturday, the IDF ceased fire to allow the transfer of humanitarian aid into Gaza. This "humanitarian corridor" has been observed daily since Wednesday.
In the day's bloodiest reported incident, an Israeli tank shell killed nine people in a garden outside a home in the northern Gaza town of Jabalya, said Adham el-Hakim, administrator of Kamal Adwan hospital.
The IDF disputed the account, saying it did not carry out attacks in that area on Saturday.
Israel has come under international criticism for the rising number of civilian casualties. Palestinian paramedics said the nine people killed in the garden were from the same clan and included two children and two women.
"Residents brought them to the hospital in a civilian car. They put them all in the trunk because their bodies were mangled," Hakim said.
Separately, a woman was killed by tank fire in the nearby town of Beit Lahiya.
AP contributed to this report