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The Israel Defense Forces on Sunday began deploying reservist troops to the Gaza Strip, for the first time since Israel began its offensive on the Hamas-ruled coastal territory 16 days ago.

The government announced a week ago Saturday that it had approved call-up of tens of thousands of reservist soldiers. The announcement was made almost simultaneously with the launch of the Gaza ground incursion, aimed at halting rocket fire on Israel's southern communities.

The government ordered the armed forces "to draft the necessary reservists, on a scale of tens of thousands of troops." Nearly 10,000 reservists had already been called up in a previous order by the defense establishment the week before.

Israel's chief military spokesman, Brigadier General Avi Benayahu, said the army has sent more reserve units into the Gaza Strip. However, thousands of reservists who would comprise a new, expanded phase in the ground operation were still in training and have not been deployed.

"We have begun to integrate reservist forces into the action in the Gaza Strip," Benayahu said on Channel 2. "We aren't acting in panic, but cautiously."

Meanwhile, IDF troops continued to surround Gaza City while the Israel Air Force launched a fierce attack on some 20 smuggling networks in the southern Gaza Strip.

Palestinian medical officials said at least 20 Palestinians were killed in fighting by midday on Sunday. The IDF said some 40 militants were either wounded or killed during the army's Sunday offensive.

The location of the ground fighting, on the southwest side of the Hamas-ruled territory's biggest population center, suggested Israel was intensifying a more than two-week-old offensive. Troops had previously kept to the outskirts of urban areas in Gaza.