infantry in Gaza 248.88.
(photo credit: AP)
As IDF troops swept into the northern Gaza Strip on Saturday night, the cabinet approved the call-up of tens of thousands of reservists, mostly from combat units, but also from the Home Front Command.
Several thousand emergency orders were issued already on Saturday night.
Meanwhile, 30 IDF soldiers were wounded in clashes with Palestinian gunmen, encountering fierce resistance from Hamas forces entrenched in fortifications just over the border.
Two of the soldiers were seriously hurt, two were moderately wounded and several others were listed in light condition after they were hit by a mortar shell. Most of the wounded were taken to Soroka Hospital in Beersheba for treatment.
The IDF bombed some 45 Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip overnight, including seven tunnels, several mortar firing cells and Kassam rocket launching cells.
Dozens of Hamas gunmen were reported killed by IDF troops.
IDF sources said that the goal was to conquer territory in northern Gaza, including rocket launch sites. Soldiers from the Armored Corps, Engineering Corps, and Paratroopers, Givati, Golani brigades were participating in the fighting, with at least four brigades' worth of troops inside the Gaza Strip.
The sources said that a majority of the rockets fired into Beersheba and Ashdod were launched from the northern Gaza Strip.
One of the major aims of the operation was also to deliver a serious blow to the Hamas military wing, which the IDF estimated had not been severely weakened under the air campaign.
The IDF would not enter Gaza City or the refugee camps, defense officials said, and it was likely that on Monday - when French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrives and the international pressure is expected to escalate - Israel would begin scaling back the operations.
"We know there will be dangers, difficulties and victims... It must be said that the ground operation entails dangers to the lives of soldiers," Defense Minister Ehud Barak said at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv. "We must end the hostile actions against Israel... We will not abandon our citizens."
On Saturday, the air force bombed dozens of targets throughout the Strip, including several homes of senior Hamas terrorists as well as bridges and roads connecting northern and southern Gaza.
At least 40 Kassam and Katyusha rockets pounded the South, scoring direct hits on homes in Netivot and Ashdod, and striking Ashkelon, Yavne and Sderot.
"This will be a lengthy operation and there will likely be casualties on our side," a senior defense official said. "But our mission is to defend the home front. The purpose is to destroy Hamas's infrastructure and impair its ability to fire rockets into Israel."
Before the ground incursion began, IDF artillery, for the first time in several years, began pounding open areas in northern Gaza to "soften up" the area and destroy land mines and Hamas fortifications.
Terrorists using civilians as human shields would bear full responsibility for their fate, the army warned.
"Anyone who hides a terrorist or weapons in his house is considered a terrorist," but "the residents of Gaza are not the target of the operation," the IDF Spokesman's Office said.
The army reiterated that the operation was in line with "decisions of the security cabinet," saying that this new stage was "part of the IDF's overall operational plan, and will continue on the basis of ongoing situational assessments by the IDF General Staff."
Fighter jets, missile ships and artillery struck more than 40 Hamas targets on Saturday, including Hamas's central intelligence headquarters in Sha'ati, weapons storage facilities, training centers and leaders' homes.
Israeli air strikes that had waned during the day gathered pace after dark. One bomb hit a mosque in Beit Lahiya, killing 14 people and wounding 33, seven critically, according to a Palestinian health official.
The IAF also hit the home of senior Hamas commander Abu Zacharia al-Jamal. A Hamas spokesman announced that Jamal was killed, which would make him the third senior operative of the group to be killed in three days.
In addition, Palestinians reported four dead from an IAF strike in the Rafah area.
On Saturday morning, the air force struck the homes of two Hamas operatives used to store weapons and plan attacks. Hamas outposts, training camps and rocket launching sites also were targeted, the army said.
The IDF also struck the American International School in Beit Lahiya, the most prestigious educational institution in Gaza. The school is not connected to the US government, but teaches an American curriculum in English. The IDF said the campus was used to fire rockets and was a legitimate target.
The air strike demolished the school's main building and killed a night watchman. Two other Palestinians were killed in a separate air strike, while three others died of wounds sustained earlier, Gaza health officials said.
Earlier, the army dropped leaflets in downtown Gaza City ordering people off the streets. The warnings were followed by the air strikes.
AP and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report
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