IDF: Hamas Men Beginning to Desert; Army Steps Up Gaza Op

Israeli commander: Over 300 Hamas operatives killed last week; IDF kills Gaza rocket-launching commander.

A senior Israeli military commander involved in Operation Cast Lead said on Saturday that Hamas militants are suffering from exhaustion and are deserting battle.

The commander told reporters that Amir Mansi, the commander of Hamas' rocket-launching program in the Gaza City area who was killed by the Israel Defense Forces on Saturday, fired mortars himself after junior Hamas operatives refused to go outside, fearing an Israeli strike.

The IDF official estimated that more than 300 Hamas operatives have been killed since Israel launched its ground offensive in Gaza one week ago.

This is the highest estimate provided thus far, and the IDF said that Hamas has purposely refrained from releasing casualty figures among its military wing.

The commander added that the army is working to tighten its grip on the northern section of the Gaza Strip.

The IDF earlier on Saturday killed Mansi, an expert with regard to long-range Grad rockets.

Mansi was identified by Israeli troops on Saturday firing mortars from Gaza. The soldiers opened fire, killing Mansi and injuring two Hamas operatives who were with him.

IAF warns Gazans that offensive will escalate

The Israel Air Force on Saturday dropped leaflets into the Gaza Strip warning residents that it plans to escalate its two-week-old offensive.

The army says it has dropped the fliers throughout Gaza. It says the notices are meant as a "general warning."

The notice says Israel is about to begin a "new phase in the war on terror." It says it will "escalate" an operation that already has killed more than 800 Palestinians.

Israel pressed on with its Gaza offensive and Hamas fired more rockets into the western Negev on Saturday in a two-week-old war that defied international efforts to stop it.

Palestinian medical officials say eight people have been killed by an IDF tank strike in the northern Gaza Strip.

The attack occurred in the town of Jabaliya. Paramedics at the scene say the dead appear to be civilians.

The IDF says it is investigating the incident.

Medical officials in the Gaza Strip said the Palestinian death toll had risen to at least 786. Gaza's Islamist Hamas rulers said more than a third were children. Ten IDF soldiers have been killed, as well as three civilians hit by Hamas rocket fire.

The IDF said 15 Hamas militants were killed in a series of 40 air strikes early on Saturday that targeted rocket launch sites, tunnels used to smuggle weapons, weapons caches and production facilities.

Five IDF soldiers sustained minor wounds during fighting before dawn on Saturday in the Gaza Strip, Israel Radio reported.

Three IDF soldiers were wounded while fighting in Gaza on Friday.

One soldier was moderately wounded, and two others were lightly hurt. All three were taken to Soroka hospital in Be'er Sheva for medical treatment.

In the early hours of Saturday morning Gaza residents said warplanes attacked a disused Hamas security compound in the southern town of Khan Younis, a market in Beit Lahiya, near the strip's northern border with Israel and several buildings in and around Gaza City. Flames and smoke could be seen rising into the sky but none of the sites were in use at the time and there were no reports of casualties.

By dawn, IDF ground troops were reported seen in Gaza City's outlying neighborhoods, a little over a mile (2 kilometers) from the seafront Shati refugee camp, but still not entering built-up areas.

IDF upholds brief humanitarian cease-fire

The IDF halted its fire in Gaza for three hours to allow the territory's besieged residents to stock up.

Spokesman Peter Lerner said Saturday's lull in fire would allow aid groups to rush through food distribution to residents. Medics also used the time to pick up casualties in areas of fighting.

It's the third time Israel has halted its fire during a two-week ground and air offensive against Gaza's Hamas rulers.

Aid groups said the three-hour lull isn't enough time, but that they would try to help as many people as they can.