The IDF announced the end of Operation Autumn Clouds Tuesday morning, but fighting continued in the northern Gaza Strip, with eight Palestinian killed by air strikes and tank shells. Meanwhile, four Kassam rockets hit Ashkelon, and one more struck in Sderot, despite the six-day anti-terror sweep in Beit Hanun, deemed a "success" by senior IDF officers.
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One of the rockets landed near an Ashkelon school, two hit the industrial zone to the south of the city, and the last one slammed into a field.
Israel Radio reported that one of the missiles hit near a sensitive strategic site. One man reportedly suffered from shock and was transported to the city's Barzilai Hospital.
The IDF responded with artillery fire on the launch site.
The barrage on Ashkelon followed five other rockets that hit open areas in and around Sderot Tuesday. No injuries or damage was reported there.
"It was very clear to us that the organizations would have a very high motivation to fire the rockets while we operated in the town, and it was also very clear that an operation of this nature would not stop Kassam rockets completely," Col. Yoal Strick, commander of the Givati infantry brigade, told The Jerusalem Post.
"There were objectives set before the operation, and those objectives were realized, so making a connection between the timing of the end of operations and the firing of rockets is not justified," he said.
In a statement released Tuesday morning, an IDF spokesman said troops had pulled out of Beit Hanun after successfully completing the operations, but warned civilians to stay away from combat zones.
Residents of Beit Hanun reported that the troops and tanks redeployed elsewhere inside the northeast corner of the Gaza Strip.
Strick said the weeklong operation was different than previous one since Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 in that the army took complete control of a Palestinian town, and operated freely within crowded neighborhoods, conducting searches, uncovering weaponry, and identifying wanted men believed to be involved in terrorist activities.
"There is almost no house in Beit Hanun that we did not reach," he said. He said the operation demonstrated to the Palestinians that his soldiers were ready to accomplish similar objectives in any other town in the Gaza Strip.
Besides the destruction of eight Kassam rocket squads and several launchers ready for use - a one-week result without precedent in the last two years - the commander said the army destroyed vast quantities of RPGs, bomb making materials, assault rifles, grenades, and other contraband. In addition, "high quality" fugitives had been handed over to the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) for further interrogation.
Some 2,000 individuals were questioned during the sweep. Most were released immediately, but "dozens" were taken into Israel, he confirmed. According to Strick, these arrests may prove to be among the most substantial achievements of the sweep, in that intelligence obtained will lead to other targets.
Strick said that within the homes, troops uncovered communications and optical equipment, evidence that terror groups were attempting to organize militarily in a manner more substantial than what he saw while heading Givati operations in the area before disengagement. He said Hamas was the dominant organization in the town of 30,000.
On Monday, the IDF Spokesman's Office said night vision equipment, counterfeit IDF uniforms, combat vests, and bomb making instruction manuals had been found in Beit Hanun.
Strick said he was proud of his soldiers' ability to keep civilian casualties to a minimum - an objective stressed in mission preparations - despite being fired upon in the densely populated inner city of Beit Hanun.
"A reoccurring theme is the terrorist use of hospitals, mosques, and the exploitation of women and buildings to attack soldiers," he said, using the example of the female suicide bomber that blew herself up near soldiers on Tuesday.
He said the troops did not enter sensitive civilian sites but that there were large quantities of weapons and fugitives hidden there.
Strick said he personally arrived at Beit Hanun's main hospital and asked what supplies were lacking.
"The call was made, and almost immediately the supplies were ordered and on the way," he said.
Despite the official end of the operation, troops remain active in the area.
Israeli tanks reportedly fired two shells at the home of a Hamas lawmaker who organized the women's protest that allowed gunmen to escape from a northern Gaza mosque under Israeli siege.
The legislator, Jamila Shanti, said she was told her sister-in-law was killed in the attack, east of the Gaza City refugee camp of Jabaliya. Israel Radio reported that four Palestinians were killed in the tank-shell blast.
The army said a tank opened fire after gunmen fired two rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) at soldiers. It said it was responding to the attack and did not target a specific house.
At nearly the same time, an IDF unit in northern Gaza, near the area of the former settlement of Dugit, shot and killed two armed Palestinians. The gunmen were reportedly members of Islamic Jihad.
Later, an air strike killed three gunmen outside of Beit Lahiya, which orders Beit Hanun. Witnesses said an IAF fighter jet fired missiles at a group of gunmen, killing two and wounding 10 gunmen and bystanders.
Israeli troops fired at gunmen in four separate incidents, and identified hits on at least 10 terrorists, according to military officials.
An IDF soldier, 59 Palestinian gunmen, and six civilians were killed during the operation, according to the IDF's count. Nine Kassam rocket squads were eliminated in air strikes and ambushes, and men believed to be involved in the production of the makeshift missiles were killed or arrested, the IDF said.
While the IDF would not say if preparations were being made for an expanded incursion into the coastal strip, the military said that plans have already been drawn up for other "focused" sweeps on the scale of Autumn Clouds. The operations were awaiting the approval of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, the sources said.
Meanwhile in the West Bank, IDF soldiers arrested 37 Palestinian fugitives in counterterror raids overnight.
In Nablus, troops captured four men from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. During the course of the operation, two explosive devices were hurled at the troops, but caused neither damages or injury.
In the vicinity of Bethlehem, 16 Hamas operatives were nabbed.
Elite border police units stormed a Ramallah cafe early Tuesday evening, taking terrorists inside by surprise.
Three fugitives were arrested in the raid, including a senior Tanzim field commander, who security officials said had been involved in shooting attacks against Israeli vehicles and was plotting to kidnap IDF soldiers and civilians.
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.