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(photo credit: Maya Lefkowitz )
After a day of fierce battles in the northern Gaza Strip, IDF soldier St.-Sgt. Kiril Golenshin and at least 10 gunmen were killed but rockets continued to fall inside the Green Line.
Despite IDF action in Beit Hanun, northern Gaza Kassam rocket squads still managed to fire nine of their crude rockets at communities in the western Negev. Army sources said the missiles were fired four kilometers to the south.
Two of the rockets fell inside Sderot - one near a warehouse inside the industrial area, and the second on a playground in the city's center - spraying shrapnel that lightly wounded a young boy, and causing property damage.
Israeli officials suggested the operation, dubbed Operation Autumn Clouds, would last days, and did not represent a widening of the overall campaign in Gaza.
The operation, described by the army as the largest strike against Hamas since reentering the Gaza Strip four months ago, began just after midnight when tanks and armored engineering units surrounded the village.
In firefights throughout the day, IDF soldiers killed 10 gunmen and identified hits on at least 60 others, an IDF spokesman in the Southern Command said.
IDF troops uncovered a weapons cache in one home consisting of rifles, ammunition, and optical equipment.
Palestinian hospital officials also reported that at least 44 people were wounded Wednesday. Most were gunmen, but a woman and an 11-year-old boy were also hurt, they said. Dr. Jamil Suleiman, director of the Beit Hanun hospital, said all of the hospital's blood supplies had been used up.
Abbas's office issued a statement condemning Israel's operation in Beit Hanun and urging the international community to take action to halt it.
A spokesman for Hamas's military wing, Abu Obeidah, advised residents of Sderot to flee.
"Staying there is going to put their lives in danger," he said. "The rockets are not going to stop."
Speaking at a press conference at the Gaza Command earlier Wednesday, Peretz said: "No one can put an absolute stop to Kassam fire, but that doesn't mean we have to remain helpless. We won't let these [terrorist organizations] grow stronger."
Peretz added that the public debate on whether the IDF should reoccupy areas of the coastal strip could "hamper" the army's operational capability.
IDF spokeswoman Capt. Avital Leibovitz said Beit Hanun was targeted because 300 rockets had been fired from the town since the beginning of the year, out of a total of 800 launched from Gaza.
A report in Ma'ariv on Wednesday cited IDF officers who said tactics had been changed following the "Hizbullah-lization" of Hamas's military wing in Gaza.
The officers said they learned lessons from what happened in southern Lebanon - where Hizbullah cells targeted Israeli armored divisions with advanced anti-tank missiles and huge land mines.
The report said troops would operate on foot to avoid the possibility of mass casualties of troops inside vehicles if fired on by Gaza terrorists.
At its meeting on Wednesday, the security cabinet adhered to Peretz's wishes and did not move to expand the military operations in Gaza, preferring to maintain the status quo of targeted operations. It did, however, ask the security forces to prepare for a larger scale operation, should one become necessary.
Newly appointed Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who is in charge of strategic threats, butted heads with Peretz in his first appearance at the cabinet meeting. According to Israel Radio, he said that Israel should act in Gaza like Russia did in Chechnya.
At its meeting, the security cabinet said it would increase cooperation with Egypt to reduce arms smuggling into Gaza. However, Egypt's foreign minister said in remarks published Wednesday that his government would not allow Israel to bomb areas along the Egypt-Gaza border where arms smuggling is believed to occur.
Ahmed Aboul Gheit told the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that any Israeli bombing in the so-called Philadelphi Corridor would violate international treaties.
"If this were to happen, it would be considered a breach of all the Palestinian-Israeli agreements. It is not possible that we would accept that or let it pass as if nothing happened," he was quoted as saying.
Aboul Gheit also denied Egypt was responsible for any cross-border smuggling.
Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter said that Egypt was not doing enough to stop the smuggling. Dichter said that Israel's technological ability to halt the rockets was improving, but he warned that Hamas forces in Gaza had adopted an operational model similar to that of Hizbullah in southern Lebanon, both in its infrastructure and connection to Iran.
Industry, Trade and Employment Minister Eli Yishai said Wednesday that it wouldn't be long before Gaza became a Hizbullah state.
The security cabinet also moved to take steps to help moderate forces within the Palestinian Authority. It said it would take measures to ease restrictions in Gaza to advance humanitarian projects.
In one such measure, Peretz authorized the transfer of 5,000 rifles to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's presidential guard, Channel 2 reported.
Meanwhile, Hamas operatives in Nablus claimed they had launched a "Nasser-1" short-range missile towards a Jewish settlement just outside the West Bank. Hamas called a press conference to announce that their successful missile launch was "a present to the martyrs and their spirits, the wounded and the Palestinian prisoners," adding that it was "the first step on the way to exterminating the Zionists with missiles of the Palestinian resistance."
Tovah Lazaroff and AP contributed to this report.
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