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IDF troops in the Gaza Strip on Saturday targeted Hamas operative Amir Mansi, a senior member of Izzadin Kassam, the group's military wing.
A senior commander of IDF operations in the Strip said that Mansi was the head of the Gaza Strip rocket division, and was previously involved in dozens of rocket attacks against Israel in recent weeks.
He was also known to be a close associate of Hizbullah, and received information from the group on a regular basis.
Mansi was killed while attempting to fire mortars at Givati troops at Jabal Rice, in the northern Gaza Strip. Two other combatants were also hit.
The IDF commander said the fact that Mansi was personally involved in attacking Israeli troops showed that the Hamas military wing was in a serious state of distress, as senior Hamas operatives would not ordinarily venture out into battlefields.
The IDF officer also said that entire companies of Hamas had been completely wiped out, and some Hamas fighters had gone AWOL or fled battlefields.
"They are afraid to come out and fight, that's why Mansi went out to fire rockets on his own," the officer said.
The officer also said that Hamas had replicated nature reserves that the IDF found in southern Lebanon in 2006, with built-up urban areas in Gaza City. The group was said to have built up tunnel systems in such a manner that if the IDF deepened its operation into the city, it would encounter face-to-face and hand-to-hand resistance.
Meanwhile, the IDF announced that at least 300 Hamas operatives have been killed since the ground offensive stage of Operation Cast Lead was launched a week ago. The IDF estimate was backed up by intelligence.
Also Saturday, IAF planes dropped leaflets warning Gaza residents of an escalation in attacks, as southern Israel came under more Palestinian rocket fire.
"The IDF will escalate the operation in the Gaza Strip," the leaflets said 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 Gaza residents not to help Hamas, and to stay away from its members.
The Israeli military said more than 15 terrorists were killed in fighting overnight Friday. It said aircraft attacked more than 40 targets including 10 rocket-launching sites, weapons-storage facilities, smuggling tunnels, an anti-aircraft missile launcher and gunmen.
Seven soldiers were lightly wounded during the operations and taken for medical treatment.
The dropping of the leaflets appeared to be partly a psychological tactic. Defense officials say they are prepared for a third stage of the offensive, in which ground troops would push much further into Gaza, but are still waiting for approval from the government.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity as they were discussing classified information, said the army has also planned a fourth stage which calls for a full reoccupation of Gaza and toppling of Hamas.
The Associated Press reported that during the day an Israeli tank shell landed outside a home in the northern Gaza town of Jebalya, killing nine people as they sat outside in their garden. Separately, a woman was killed by an Israeli air strike in the southern town of Rafah.
During the night, troops from the infantry, tanks, artillery, engineering and intelligence corps were engaging with Hamas operatives. Snipers fired at soldiers from the Paratroopers Brigade. The troops fired back and reported a hit. Mortar shells were fired at soldiers from the Givati infantry brigade. Troops returned mortar fire.
Between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Saturday, the military halted fire in order to allow the transfer of humanitarian aid into Gaza. The "humanitarian corridor" has been observed daily since Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Israel Radio reported that the United States denied claims that an arms shipment arriving to Israel aboard a cargo ship from Greece was intended for use by the IDF in Gaza.
The shipment was part of reserve munitions kept for the US army by Israel in storage facilities it holds here and the timing of its arrival was unrelated to Operation Cast Lead, the station quoted US officials as saying.