Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi ordered the air force to strike eight Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip overnight Tuesday, in light of the militant group's increased offensives against Israeli troops and civilians along the border over the last two weeks.
The multiple-target operation was the first of its kind in month, and came on the surface in response to a barrage of rockets fired at the western Negev over the last few days. Another rocket fired from Gaza struck near a kindergarten in the Ashkelon area just hours after the IDF attack, lightly wounding an Israeli girl on her way to school.
The IDF's targets included four Hamas-run smuggling tunnels near the border with Egypt, as well as arms depots and militant bases. Ashkenazi told reporters that troops identified hitting at least three gunmen from the Hamas' military wing over the course of the operation.
The IDF has discerned increased Hamas military activity over the last two weeks, particularly against troops stationed near the security fence and civilian communities in the Gaza envelope.
Some 30 mortar shells and 10 Qassam rockets have been fired over that period of time. Also, an IDF tank was hit in the northern portion of the border with the Gaza Strip by an anti-tank missile two weeks ago. The tank was damaged but the crew was not injured.
Although Islamic Jihad and the Palestinian Resistance Committee have been behind the majority of the recent rocket attacks and attempts to strike Israeli army patrols, the IDF believes that these militants have been carry out orders from Hamas.
Up until two weeks ago, Hamas had been "sitting on the fence", restraining its own militants' activity while in effect allowing other groups to continue with their attacks.
The IDF assesses that Hamas is not interested in a full-scale escalation, but that the movement's echelon has grown into unprecedented despair regarding the lack of progress in prisoner swap negotiations with Israel and with the stalled reconciliation talks with the rival Fatah faction.
The IDF decided on Sunday that it would begin deploying tanks equipped with an active armor protection system known as Windbreaker to the border area along the Gaza Strip.
The deployment will begin next month following intelligence assessments that militants in the Gaza Strip have upgraded their anti-tank missile capabilities.
Discussions were held with the Southern Command, the General Staff operations department and the Ground Forces Command about making changes to IDF forces in the area.
A number of Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip hold hundreds of anti-tank missiles, of different types and sophistication - from the relatively simply RPG to advanced anti-tank missiles.
The IDF may be forced to react to Gazans' upgrading of anti-tank missiles by changing tactics along the border and limiting exposure of tanks.
The main focus of IDF ground activity in the Gaza Strip is the buffer zone of several hundred meters inside the Strip from the fence along the border.
During the past two years Gazans have avoided engaging IDF forces entering the area - operations mainly aiming to identify mines laid by militants.
However, there have also been cases of sniper fire, anti-tank missile fire and the detonation of improvised explosive devices against the IDF patrols. Even though there have been low key altercations, there is concern that a Palestinian strike against an Israeli armored vehicle will spark a greater conflagration which will expand and end with massive rocket fire against civilian communities in Israel.
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