Gaza medical personnel said a woman and four of her children were among the 35 Palestinians killed on Sunday during an Israel Defense Forces ground offensive in the coastal territory.

The deaths came as IDF ground troops and tanks cut swaths through the Gaza Strip early Sunday, cutting the coastal territory into two and surrounding its biggest city as the new phase of the devastating 9-day offensive against Hamas gained momentum.

Israel's stated goals for the offensive, named Operation Cast Lead, are the destruction of Hamas' infrastructure and the cessation of rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza.

The military used overwhelming firepower from tanks, artillery and aircraft to protect the advancing soldiers.

Gaza officials said an IAF strike killed five Palestinian civilians outside a mosque in the northern Gaza Strip on Sunday.

Among those killed in Gaza since Saturday night were another five people who Palestinian medics said died when shells fired by IDF troops exploded in the center of Gaza City's main shopping area. Dozens of others were wounded, the medics said.

The IDF said troops killed several dozen militants, but Gaza officials could confirm only four dead - in part because rescue teams could not reach the battle zones.

Meanwhile, the Israel Air Force on Sunday struck and wounded Husam Hamdan, a senior Hamas militant responsible for the Qassam rocket infrastructure in the Gaza town of Khan Yunis and the firing of Grad rockets on Be'er Sheva and Ofakim.

The strike also wounded Hamas militants Mohammed Hilo and Mohammed Shalfuh, members of Hamas' special forces who helped supervise the construction and firing of Qassams from Khan Yunis.

The operation was carried out through the combined planning of the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security services.

Israeli ground troops entered Gaza on Saturday night, following a week of aerial strikes aimed at ending rocket fire on Israel's southern communities. Despite repeated bombing raids, the rocket fire continued, killing four Israelis over the last week.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday that Israel could not allow its southern residents to be targeted continuously, and had been left with no choice but to act.

The bisection of the Strip by IDF ground forces Sunday was aimed at cutting off the north - including Gaza City - from the rest of Gaza. According to Palestinian reports, the split ran from the Karni crossing on the Israel border in central Gaza to the sea.

Report: 150 IDF tanks converge at former settlement of Netzarim

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Palestinian sources also said that Israeli troops have clashed with gunmen on the outskirts of Gaza City.

Initial reports from both Israel and Gaza on Saturday night indicated that IDF troops had killed dozens of Hamas gunmen as they traded heavy fire upon entering the Strip.

Once the ground operation got underway at around 8 P.M. Saturday, the IDF Spokesperson's office issued a statement emphasizing that this stage of the operation would further the goals of the eight-day offensive as voiced by the IDF until now: To strike a direct and hard blow against the Hamas while increasing the deterrent strength of the IDF, in order to bring about an improved and more stable security situation for residents of Southern Israel over the long term.

"The objective is to destroy the Hamas terror infrastructure in the area of operations," said Israel Defense Forces Major Avital Leibovitch, a military spokeswoman, confirming that incursions were under way. "We are going to take some of the launch areas used by Hamas."

The ground operation includes large numbers of infantry, tanks, engineering forces, artillery and intelligence, who are supported by the Israel Air Force, Israel Navy, the Shin Bet security service and other security agencies.

The invasion was preceded by hours of artillery fire at the strip from military staging areas dotted along the Gaza-Israel border. One of the aims of the fire was to detonate Hamas explosive devices and mines planted along the border area before troops went in.