In a major military offensive against a Hamas stronghold, IDF infantry backed by tanks and armored vehicles pushed into the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, killing 23 Palestinians, including at least 14 gunmen and three girls, as Israel pressed ahead with its fight against Islamic terrorists on a second front.
The fierce clashes, which also wounded dozens of Palestinians including a cameraman for Palestinian Television, broke out before dawn as soldiers from the Givati brigade accompanied by infantry forces moved about two kilometers into northern Gaza under cover of darkness, in a sweep against terror suspects.
The gunmen killed by the troops in the intense day-long clash were from the Hamas Islamic Jihad and Popular Resistance Committees.
There were no casualties reported among the Israeli troops, who were aided throughout the operation by air force cover, in a heavily-backed military strike in the heart of Hamas territory.
Lt.-Col. Guy Biton, a Givati Brigade reconnaissance battalion commander, said that the area was brimming with terrorists, who fired antitank missiles and other weapons at the troops from inside civilian houses in the Sajjaiya neighborhood.
As ground troops entered the area, an aircraft fired missiles at gunmen on the streets.
A three-year-old Palestinian girl and a handicapped man who were caught in the intense fight were among the civilian fatalities in the violence.
In a separate incident in northern Gaza, a five-year-old girl and her eight-month-old sister where killed when an artillery shell landed on their house, Palestinian hospital officials said.
Wednesday's death toll was among the highest in the four-week-old offensive in Gaza, although the fact that the vast majority of those killed in the operation, code-named "Pillars of Samson," were Palestinian gunmen - with no Israeli casualties - made it one of the more successful Israeli operations to date.
Urging swift international intervention, senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called the violence in Gaza, which has been overshadowed by the war in the North, "the forgotten war." The clashes come one month after Israel launched an ongoing military offensive in the densely populated coastal strip following a daring cross-border Hamas raid at an Israeli military post, in which two soldiers were killed and a third, 19-year-old Cpl. Gilad Shalit was abducted.
In the month since the attack, Egyptian-led negotiations over Shalit's release have stalled, with the Hamas leadership in Damascus said to be holding up an exchange deal.
The crisis over Shalit's release was exacerbated by Hizbullah's subsequent cross-border raid in northern Israel two weeks later, in which eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two reservists abducted, sparking the concomitant two-week-old war in the North.
The month-long military offensive in Gaza, which has killed about 100 Palestinian gunmen, has clearly turned up the pressure on Hamas, which was already struggling under a crippling US-led aid embargo designed to pressure the terror group to recognize Israel's right to exist, renounce violence and accept past peace agreements.
Despite the ongoing military raids, Palestinian terrorists continued Wednesday to launch Kassam rockets at Israel from Gaza, with over 200 rockets fired in the last month alone.
Meanwhile, Israeli security officials were on heightened alert Wednesday after intelligence reports again indicated that a Palestinian suicide bomber was on the loose in the West Bank.