Defense Minister Amir Peretz revealed on Thursday that a "surprising diplomatic breakthrough" was possible in the attempts to release kidnapped Cpl. Gilad Shalit, but did not elaborate on the development.
"We are in one of the most crucial stages of establishing the rules of conduct between us and the Palestinian terror organizations," he asserted.
Still, he approved the continuation of IDF operations in Gaza that have been taking place since Tuesday night. He urged the forces to be aware of the Palestinian population's distress.
As part of the continuing offensive, the IAF confirmed that it had struck a car in Gaza that transported two Islamic Jihad operatives. Conflicting reports vary on the fate of the targets. Some Palestinian sources revealed that at least one of the passengers was wounded in the attack, while others claimed that both escaped unharmed.
Meanwhile, Palestinian operatives laid an explosive device along the border with Egypt, and blasted a large hole in the fence. Egyptian officers lined the breach and Palestinian security forces fired in the air to prevent entry of Palestinians into the Sinai Peninsula.
Earlier, the IAF launched missiles at what it said were open areas near Khan Younis; Palestinians claimed that a car was struck and that a number of people were wounded.
The strike followed the launch of a Kassam rocket from Gaza, landing in a stable in Sderot. There were reports of at least two Sderot residents who were suffering from shock
The IDF has been shelling Kassam launch sites in northern Gaza with artillery. Palestinians reported of a 45-year old farmer who sustained moderate wounds from an artillery shell.
Meanwhile, the Hizbullah television channel Al-Manar was reporting that Arab diplomats in Gaza were leaving the Strip for fear of an Israeli assault, Israel Radio reported.
In a move that would add a second front for Israeli forces in Gaza, IDF tanks, bulldozers and APCs carrying Givati Brigade soldiers were preparing to move into the northern Gaza Strip Thursday morning. The incursion would be the second phase of "Operation Summer Rains," launched Tuesday night with the goal of retrieving kidnapped Cpl. Gilad Shalit.
The forces had amassed near Kibbutz Mefalsim as early as Wednesday morning, and had waited tensely for the invasion order, which never came. Their mission was to take control of the northern Gaza Strip, including Beit Hanun and Beit Lahiya, preferred sites for firing Kassam rockets at the Western Negev.
Palestinian sources Thursday morning warned against the move, saying that terror cells in northern Gaza had laid roadside bombs, readied suicide bombers, and had strapped explosives to donkeys to thwart the IDF ground assault.
Palestinian witnesses also reported heavy IDF shelling around Gaza's long-closed airport, and IAF missiles hit two empty Hamas training camps and an arms factory operated by the Fatah-affiliated Aksa Martyrs' Brigades. Warplanes flew low over the strip, rocking it with sonic booms and shattering windows. Troops in Israel backed up the assault with artillery fire.
No casualties were reported in the incursion, launched in southern Gaza. The area's normally bustling streets were eerily deserted, with people taking refuge inside their homes. Dozens of people living near the airport fled to nearby Rafah.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz approved the invasion orders late Wednesday night. IAF planes dropped thousands of flyers over Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanun Wednesday night, warning residents that they would be endangering their lives if they remained in their homes.
The ultimate goal, Peretz said, was to retrieve Shalit and to stop the incessant Kassam fire, not to reoccupy Gaza.
"The murderous kidnapping of Gilad Shalit crossed a red line," Peretz said during a reception at the home of British Ambassador Simon McDonald. "We are utilizing all the diplomatic tools available, but unfortunately we are encountering a brick wall made up of the Palestinian Authority and that is why we decided to operate inside Gaza."
Earlier in the day, in the IDF's first major ground incursion into Gaza since disengagement some 10 months ago, Battalion 13 of the Golani Brigade invaded southern Gaza and took control of the abandoned Dahaniya airport with the goal of preventing Shalit's kidnappers from smuggling him across the border into Egypt. Fighter planes carried out missile strikes throughout the day on open areas in southern Gaza as part of a larger effort to deter the kidnappers from trying to move their captive.
"Shalit is in Gaza," OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoav Gallant confirmed on Wednesday. He refused, however, to comment on exactly what information the IDF had concerning his whereabouts.
In addition to added pressure on Hamas, which was behind Shalit's kidnapping, the imminent incursion into northern Gaza was also meant to target the terrorists behind the firing of Kassams.
"The Hamas government is a government of terror, which has set for itself an agenda to destroy Israel and to kidnap soldiers," Gallant said. "Our operation will focus on destroying terror infrastructure and preventing the transfer of Shalit out of Gaza."
Alongside the military operation, Gallant said diplomatic efforts were still under way and that Israel viewed positively all foreign diplomatic efforts to help retrieve Shalit. Peretz spoke with Egyptian officials Wednesday night and urged them to intervene in talks with the Palestinians.
Palestinians reported heavy shelling around Gaza's long-closed airport, as IAF-fired missiles hit two empty Hamas training camps and a Kassam manufacturing facility. Fighters flew low over Gaza, rocking it with sonic booms and shattering windows. IDF artillery fire was also reactivated for the first time since Peretz suspended it three weeks ago after seven civilians were killed in an explosion, not caused by Israel, on a Gaza beach.
The incursion began shortly before midnight Tuesday, when the IAF blew up three main bridges along the main route connecting the northern and southern parts of the Strip. The objective was to make movement more difficult for Shalit's kidnappers.
The air force also struck an electrical transformer station south of Gaza City, cutting the power supply to large portions of Gaza. Palestinian sources said the IAF fired at least nine missiles at the electric station. A large fire erupted, burning turbines and fuel supplies.