Cast Lead
The leg of a Hamas policeman between the rubbles following an Israeli air strike in Gaza December 27, 2008. Photo by Reuters
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The Israel Air Force continued its bombing of Gaza Strip targets before dawn Thursday, hitting three government buildings in Gaza City. Hospital officials said 25 wounded were evacuated from nearby houses.

With a shrinking number of targets to hit from the air and top Hamas leaders deep in hiding, an Israel Defense Forces ground operation seemed all the more likely.

In fresh raids on the sixth day of hostilities, Israelo aircraft and naval forces attacked about 20 Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, an IDF official said.

Hamas security officials said buildings housing the education and transportation ministries had been virtually destroyed. The Palestinian parliament building was also hit, they said. Gazans who ventured out of their homes walked along rubble-strewn streets to survey the destruction.

On Wednesday, The IAF reported that it had hit 25 terror-related targets including the offices of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and a mosque in the city of Gaza where Hamas activists were hiding, and which had been used as a weapons storehouse.

Rockets had also been fired at Israel from the mosque.

Shin Bet security service officials said that over the last few days, Palestinian militants have been seen carrying Katyusha and Qassam rockets, as well as a large supply of other weapons, around the vicinity of the mosque. The Shin Bet said that these weapons were destroyed in the IAF strike.

Israeli aircraft pounded smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border earlier Wednesday, setting off a huge explosion in a fuel tunnel, witnesses said, as other aircraft hit Hamas positions in Gaza City.

At least six Palestinians were killed on Wednesday in the Israeli attacks including a Palestinian doctor and medic. Until now, 396 Palestinians have been killed in Operation Cast Lead and 1,600 have been injured.

In five days of shock-and-awe raids, IAF warplanes have carried out some 500 sorties against Hamas targets, and helicopters have flown hundreds more combat missions, a senior Israeli military officer said on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations.

The IDF said Haniyeh's office was a "government target that also served as a planning, support, and finance center for terrorist activity."

The army added that the strike also hit a Hamas ammunition arsenal, a military camp and a rocket launcher.

A senior Israeli military officer on Wednesday said jetfighters have carried out some 500 sorties against Hamas targets in Gaza. He said helicopters have flown hundreds more combat missions.

The officer claimed 95 percent of the intended targets were hit.

He said the targets included Hamas command posts, some 130 missile launch sites and anyone who could be carrying a weapon. Also hit was Hamas Islamic University, which he described as a weapons research facility.

He went on to say that all efforts were made to avoid civilian casualties, including calling residents on their phones to warn them their buildings were about to be hit.

However, dozens of civilians have been killed in the offensive, along with some 200 Hamas policemen.

The officer spoke Wednesday on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations.

Meanwhile, the Israel Defense Forces has finished preparing for a ground operation in the Gaza Strip.

On Tuesday, at least 30 Palestinians - including two sisters aged 5 and 12 - were killed in Israeli attacks on Gaza, and Palestinians fired more than 40 rockets on southern Israel by Tuesday evening. A Katyusha rocket hit Be'er Sheva - located 37 kilometers from Gaza - for the first time on Tuesday. Ofakim and Rahat, both 25 kilometers from Gaza, were also hit by their first Katyushas.

Hamas took responsibility for the Katyushas aimed at Be'er Sheva, and its military wing said Tuesday night that it plans to fire at Israeli targets that are even further away as long as the IDF operation continues.

The Israel Air Force continued its intensive search for rocket launchers on Tuesday. "We haven't finished the work yet," IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi told President Shimon Peres on Tuesday.

Israel bombed dozens of smuggling tunnels in Rafah Tuesday night, the second such attack in two days. The attack came after Israel advised the Egyptian army to move its soldiers away from the border so they wouldn't get hurt in the bombing. Aside from the tunnels, the number of targets attacked by the air force decreased on Tuesday.

Israeli warplanes bombed the Hamas government complex in Tel al-Hawa, in the Gaza City area, knocking down the seven-story buildings housing Hamas' foreign, finance and labor ministries early Tuesday. In a separate attack, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's office was bombed a second time.

The Israel Navy also took part in the operation, with navy ships attacking targets along the Gaza coast.

Hamas accused Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of establishing an emergency operations room to prepare plans for a Fatah takeover of Gaza if Israel begins a ground incursion. Hamas' military wing vowed that if Israel attempted to bring its troops into the Strip, the children of Gaza would soon be collecting soldiers' body parts.

Barak asks for additional reserve troops

Defense Minister Ehud Barak asked the cabinet Tuesday night to approve the mobilization of an additional 2,510 reserve forces soldiers by means of an emergency call-up order (Tzav Shmoneh).

If approved, they will join the 6,700 reservists whose mobilization the cabinet approved on Sunday. Barak apprised Cabinet Secretary Oved Yehezkel of his decision in writing, and requested approval of the order from the cabinet by phone. The resolution will be submitted to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee within 48 hours, as required by law.

The additional reservists will be deployed in the Home Front Command, the Border Police, the Navy, the Logistics Branch, Military Intelligence and Ground Forces headquarters.

The Home Front Command will begin training activities on Wednesday in the communities that were only included in the rocket-strike range as of Monday, such as Gan Yavne, Yavne and Rehovot. Some reservists will be deployed to the liaison units working with local governments in these communities. Physicians and psychologists will be called up to assist local governments in the south with their emergency response programs.

The head of the Israel Defense Force's Central Command, Yair Golan, is planning to introduce an experimental program that will divide the larger towns and cities in the area under attack into districts to facilitate the use of volunteers. He also wants to dispatch students in military academies to the south to aid the communities.

The Central Command plans to focus its activities on Wednesday on Ofakim, which was hit by Katyusha rockets on Tuesday for the first time.

Military officials believe 2,000 rockets remain in terrorist organizations' arsenals, compared to nearly 3,000 last week. More than 200 rockets were fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip since Operation Cast Lead began.

Hundreds more were destroyed in Israel Air Force sorties, as were rocket launchers. The same officials believe that Hamas and Islamic Jihad have a few dozen Katyusha rockets with a range of 40 kilometers, and a few hundred 20 kilometer rockets.

Army officials are very concerned about the 120 kilometer Iranian-made mortar shells that are causing heavy damage in Gaza-area communities and IDF bases. The assumption is that some of the rockets fired in the past few days were aimed at Air Force bases in the south, although none have hit their mark. About one quarter of the rockets fired this week from Gaza hit populated areas, with the remainder falling in open areas.

The IDF believes that about two thirds of Hamas' underground rocket launch sites in the northern Gaza Strip were destroyed in the first round of Air Force sorties, on Saturday.

Additional bunkers were destroyed in the days that followed, after a way was found of striking them when civilians were not in the vicinity.

The IDF has made frequent use of what is known as "knocking on the roof": Militants are warned by phone when a residential building used to store arms will be bombed, and told to vacate the premises together with their neighbors. The weapons caches are hit only after the residents leave.

Hamas has tried placing civilians on the roofs of such buildings when the phone call warning comes in. In these cases, the IDF fired antitank missiles near the building, and in a few cases the residents left.