Preparations nearly two years in the making were put into action yesterday as a two-wave offensive of 88 Israel Air Force fighter jets and helicopters delivered over 100 tons of explosives to approximately 100 Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip.

Planning for the operation began in early 2007, but the operation was suspended amid tensions with Syria that lasted several months until the strike on September 6 destroyed its North Korean-built nuclear reactor.

The Israel Defense Forces then raised its state of readiness last March, but after the Givati Brigade's Operation Warm Winter in the Strip, the government decided to again postpone the air force operation.

Still, planning continued even as a ceasefire was declared in June and the operation itself was temporarily shelved. Since then, in light of lessons learned during the Second Lebanon War, a "target bank" was compiled by the IDF General Staff's intelligence and operations branches with the aid of GOC Southern Command and the Shin Bet security service. The list was compiled to allow a prolonged, effective strike capability, in contrast to the air force's experience in Lebanon where the list of targets was exhausted after only three days.

The "bank" included hundreds of targets including positions, command centers, offices and training grounds affiliated with Hamas as well as with Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees. Information was also compiled on civilian sites such as roads, bridges and power plants.

In recent weeks, as Israel learned that Hamas did not intend to continue the ceasefire past the six-month mark on December 19, preparations were completed and activity coordinated with the air force.

Still, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of Staff, General Gabi Ashkenazi, refrained for an extended period from authorizing a major operation in the Strip and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said last month, "I don't know of a single general advising me to go into Gaza."

The change in strategy among the political echelon came gradually and solidified last Friday, December 19, when it became clear that Palestinians in the Strip intended to continue firing rockets on a massive scale at southern Israel.

Last Wednesday the cabinet authorized an operational plan. The first stage would include a wave of aerial attacks while the possibility of ground operations would be decided at a later date. The improved weather and the opportunity to surprise Hamas led to the operation being launched yesterday.

Still, a problem remained: media coverage over Israel's hesitation had reached Hamas as well. Barak therefore chose to pursue a policy of deception - on Thursday night his office announced the crossings into the Strip would be opened to allow food and medication to enter.

The move attracted fierce criticism from the media and right-wing lawmakers, which Barak absorbed quietly. The opening of the crossings, likewise, quieted Hamas, which was led to believe it had time to pursue diplomatic channels. In addition, the media was informed that the prime minister would hold a meeting about the matter today and that a significant number of army units would be sent home for vacation.