By YAAKOV KATZ
As Hamas continued to bombard the South with dozens of rockets on Wednesday, senior defense officials said a ground operation was "days away."
The air force struck Wednesday at more than 25 targets throughout the Strip, including a Gaza City mosque that the army said was being used to hide Kassam rockets. The IAF reported several secondary explosions following the strike.
A number of Hamas outposts and command posts were also destroyed, as well as a tunnel in Khan Younis that was used to covertly move weapons throughout southern Gaza.
Since Operation Cast Lead began on Saturday, fighter jets have carried out some 500 sorties against Hamas targets, the IDF said, adding that attack helicopters had also flown hundreds of combat missions. According to the IDF, at least 95 percent of the targets were hit.
Also on Wednesday, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin told the cabinet that Hamas had turned some mosques into command and control centers, assuming that Israel would not bomb them. He also said Hamas has stockpiled weapons in mosques.
After the security cabinet on Wednesday rejected a French proposal for a 48-hour suspension of the fighting, defense officials said the IDF was ordered to complete preparations for a ground operation, the second stage of Operation Cast Lead.
"The ground operation will come as a surprise," an official explained. "Hamas fighters are currently waiting in their positions for us to come, but they will be shocked and surprised when it happens."
The incursion, the official said, would not be designed to retake the Gaza Strip.
"It is not in our interest to conquer all of Gaza since then we don't know how we will get back out," the official said. "Instead what we are talking about is a surgical operation that will have the effect of changing Hamas's attitude and making the group understand that it is against its interest to fire rockets into Israel."
As the rocket fire intensified on Wednesday, when more than 60 rockets hit the South, Defense Minister Ehud Barak decided to expand the "special security situation," that he had previously declared, to all communities within 40 km. of the Gaza Strip, up from 30 km.
The declaration grants the Home Front Command the authority to close factories, cancel conferences and events, and conduct other civilian activities. It also enables the security establishment to play an active role in municipal affairs alongside the local authorities.
Soldiers from Battalion 51 of the Golani Brigade, stationed along the Gaza border, said Wednesday that they were itching to invade and that all of the necessary preparations had been made.
"We all know what we are supposed to do and what our targets will be," said one commander. "All we need is the green light from the political echelon."
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