Massive artillery, aerial bombardment precedes invasion by IDF ground forces
The forces that entered the Gaza Strip last night represented the largest ground operation in the coastal territory since Israel withdrew in the summer of 2005. Palestinian sources reported massive artillery shelling and air force strikes accompanying the advance of the infantry, armored and combat engineering corps.
The ground invasion was preceded by large-scale artillery shelling from around 4 P.M., intended to "soften" the targets as artillery batteries deployed along the Strip in recent days began bombarding Hamas targets and open areas near the border. Hundreds of shells were fired, including cluster bombs aimed at open areas.
The IDF has not aimed its artillery at the Strip for over two years, since a November 2006 strike on Beit Hanoun killed 18 members of a single family due to an aiming error.
Before the artillery strikes, the Israel Air Force struck three targets on Salah a-Din street, a major road running from the northern to southern ends of the Strip. Such a strike could disrupt reinforcement efforts from various parts of the Strip. Transportation from the southern to northern parts of the coastal territory is already difficult, particularly in the wake of an IDF strike on a bridge at the artery's northern end.
Yesterday morning aircraft fire killed Mamdouh Jamal, a senior commander of Hamas' military wing in Gaza City, while he was driving in his car. Military sources said Jamal was responsible for firing Katyusha rockets at Israel.
The homes of three other senior Hamas figures were also targeted, but the operatives themselves were not home at the time.
The IDF Home Front Command instructed those responsible for security and rescue efforts in communities surrounding the Strip to maintain a high level of preparedness, for fear that Hamas may respond with massive rocket and mortar strikes on the entry points to the coastal territory.
IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and GOC Southern Command Yoav Gallant visited units amassed at the Gaza border yesterday afternoon, and said they were satisfied with the high level of motivation among officers and soldiers, and the forces' general level of preparedness. A senior officer who met with troops in recent days told Haaretz that he was impressed by the "pragmatic, not raucous" environment among commanders on the ground.
In the internal power division within the IDF General Staff, Ashkenazi has assumed the title of "campaign commander," and Gallant that of "operation commander." GOC Southern Command is maintaining close contact with the air force, Shin Bet security service and Military Intelligence.
Meanwhile, the IDF has cut short training exercises for several reserve units called up for annual drills unrelated to the Gaza operation. The army apparently intends to keep its training bases available for the rapid training, if necessary, of reserve units bound for the Strip. Prior to the ground operation, the government had authorized the mobilization of some 9,200 reserve soldiers.
The IAF bombed dozens of targets over the weekend across the Strip, raising the overall Palestinian death toll to 460. A strike on a mosque in the village of Beit Lahia in the northern Strip killed at least 10 people. A senior commander in Hamas' armed wing, Abu Zakaria Jamal, was killed early Saturday morning, and on Friday the IAF bombed the home of senior operative Mohammed Madhoun, who Israel said was responsible for the manufacture and firing of rockets.
Earlier Friday, the IAF targeted the home of Hamas military wing commander Imad Akel, whose house was reportedly used as a large storage facility for weapons. The IAF also bombed the residence of former Hamas minister Atef Adwan, who was the group's minister of prisoners' affairs.
Also on Friday afternoon, the IAF resumed its assault on the Philadelphi route tunnels, used to smuggle supplies into the Strip from Egypt. Earlier Friday, IAF planes, in coordination with the Shin Bet security service, bombed the home of senior Hamas operative Mohammed Matouk. The IDF said the home was being used by militants as a weapons storehouse and factory, and that a smuggling tunnel had been dug underneath the building.