idf photo of tunnel location.
(photo credit: IDF)
A Palestinian gunman was killed Wednesday night in an IAF airstrike in northern Gaza.
The army said it identified a rocket launcher and fired in his direction.
Dr. Moaiya Hassanain, a Palestinian Health Ministry official, confirmed that one person was killed and the Islamic Jihad identified that man as a member of the group.
It came after some 45 Kassam rockets and mortar shells were fired in response to the IDF's counter-terror tunnel operation overnight Tuesday.
In what was the worst outbreak of violence since a shaky cease-fire took effect in June, two of the rockets hit Ashkelon, one landing near a school and sending six people into shock.
On Tuesday night, seven IDF soldiers were wounded and six gunmen were reported killed in clashes which erupted when IDF special forces entered Gaza in order to blow up a tunnel dug by Hamas terrorists for the purpose of kidnapping IDF soldiers.
Soroka University Medical Center in Beersheba said Wednesday that it had admitted seven wounded soldiers. One, who was the most seriously hurt among them, underwent surgery and was sent to the intensive care unit. One was in moderate condition in the orthopedics department, while four more suffered light wounds and discharged later Wednesday.
Israel ordered the Gaza crossings closed following the rocket attacks, but while tensions ran high, Israeli officials said they remained committed to the cease-fire with Hamas, stressing that Tuesday night's operation was an isolated one.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak held a special situation assessment with top security officials Wednesday morning to discuss the situation, and decided in light of the attacks to close the crossings between Israel and Gaza.
"We have an interest in continuing the truce, but we need to foil operations against soldiers and residents of the Gaza belt," said Barak on a tour of the Gaza periphery neighborhoods.
"The IDF will continue to prepare for all possibilities, including the scenario in which we must to do something to thwart an attack," he said, adding, "We are using the truce and its extension to look for ways to bring [captured IDF soldier] Gilad Schalit home."
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said that while Israel wanted to continue the truce, it could not tolerate tunnel digging.
"When Israel agreed to the truce it didn't agree that while there was calm, Hamas would exploit it to dig tunnels, whether they are for smuggling weapons, for perpetrating attacks or kidnapping soldiers," she said. "Therefore, if it becomes clear that is what's happening, it is the government's responsibility to act."
"The [Tuesday night] operation was necessary in order to preserve Israel security," she continued. "Israel cannot tolerate such blatant violations of the truce."
Livni said that now, the decision on whether to continue the cease-fire, wholly depended on Hamas.
Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i also said Israel had no intention of upsetting the cease-fire.
"We are not interested in escalation," Vilna'i said. "The calm brings quiet to the southern communities, and we have an interest in maintaining it."
Vilna'i explained that the IDF operation overnight Tuesday was made to counter "an immediate threat."
During the course of Tuesday night's fighting, terrorists blew up a house in which the tunnel surfaced, an explosion which testified to a "large amount of explosives," a military source said.
The Kassam attacks quickly followed, and the IDF said the Home Front Command had taken steps to prepare for the possibility of an escalation.
The source added that the attack tunnel was ready for "imminent use," describing it as a "ticking tunnel" for the purpose of kidnapping soldiers.
The IDF accused Hamas of jeopardizing the truce by digging the tunnel and plotting to abduct more Israeli soldiers in the immediate future.
"The tunnel we uncovered was ready for imminent use, forcing us to act immediately," the military source said. "We did not know where the other end of the tunnel surfaced. In light of the intelligence we received about its immediate use, plans for special forces to enter Gaza this evening after sundown were approved," he added.
"The operation will end tonight and soldiers will head back to Israeli territory," the source added. "We are committed to the ceasefire, but we saw an immediate threat of kidnapping. Hamas placed the ceasefire in jeopardy. We can't ignore a red warning light of a kidnapping attack."
Asked if he believed the cease-fire had ended, the military source told The Jerusalem Post, "I don't think there's any reason for this to happen. We are doing what needs to be done. But if [the] other side forces us, we will take further steps."
The Defense Ministry's diplomatic-military bureau chief, Amos Gilad, on Wednesday said that the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier was a totally unreasonable risk to take and that it was worth making every effort to prevent it.
"The moment intelligence indicated that such an operation was being planned, a decision was made to prevent the kidnapping of a soldier and to prevent a murderous terror attackâ€¦Israel places the utmost importance in protecting its soldiers," he said.
"In the ensuing security discussions, again and again, we returned to the deep commitment we have to IDF soldiers to prevent such a kidnapping operation," he continued. "It was therefore decided unequivocally to thwart the severe operation which would have had repercussions for the soldier, the IDF and the entire country."
Nevertheless, Gilad was optimistic regarding the future of the cease-fire.
"I don't believe that this marks the end of the truce. The cease-fire is [also] in place due to the interests of the other side that certainly still wants to prevent harsh IDF attacks and other blows Israel can deal it. It has an interest in this period of calm," he insisted.
"The foundations of the case-fire are much deeper," he said, stressing, however, that Israel would be prepared for any possible confrontation.
"They [Hamas] know that they violated the basic understandings of the truce, but I assume that we can expect a restoration of the calm," he added.
Meanwhile, Israel Beiteinu Chairman MK Avigdor Lieberman said the rocket barrage from the Gaza Strip showed the failure of the cease-fire.
"The recent events in the South prove that the cease-fire agreement only serves the interests of Hamas," he said. "Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who organized, decided on and was proud of the agreement, needs to internalize its immediate results, and quit," he went on.
Hamas vowed revenge for its casualties. "Our response will be harsh, and the enemy will pay a heavy price," the group said in a statement on its military wing's Website.
Palestinians reported that five gunmen were killed in two IAF strikes south of Khan Yunis, which the army said were carried out against mortar shell launching squads.
Taher Nunu, a Hamas spokesman, said the group considered the air strikes a violation of the truce.
"This is a serious breach of the truce understandings reached through Egyptian mediation," he said in an e-mail message to reporters. "We consider this the most serious in a string of breaches."
Since the cease-fire went into effect in June, Hamas has dug an unknown number of tunnels to facilitate future attacks on Israel and to smuggle large quantities of weapons from Sinai. The tunnels are seen as central to Hamas's terrorist infrastructure in the Strip.
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