Troops take control of airport, open areas east of Rafah
IAF bombs Gaza bridges to stop soldier being moved; PA receives report Shalit being held in Khan Yunis.
IDF tanks and troops rolled into southern Gaza before dawn Wednesday, encountering little resistance from Palestinians, in a bid to pressure Palestinian militants into releasing an Israel Defense Forces soldier seized Sunday in an attack on a military position near the Gaza border.
Speaking after the launch of the operation, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned that Israel would not balk at "extreme action" to retrieve Corporal Gilad Shalit. (Click here for map of Gaza)
The operation, dubbed "Summer Rain," was launched after two days of failed mediation over the release of Shalit. Defense sources told Army Radio on Wednesday morning that the Gaza incursion is the first stage of the operation.
"We won't hesitate to carry out extreme action to bring Gilad back to his family," Olmert said.
"All the military activity that started overnight will continue in the coming days," Olmert said. "We do not intend to reoccupy Gaza. We do not intend to stay there. We have one objective, and that is to bring Gilat home," he said.
Olmert, speaking at an awards ceremony at the prime minister's residence, reiterated that Israel would not negotiate Shalit's release with militant groups - repeating this point twice for emphasis. He said Israel holds the Hamas government, and the Hamas leadership in Syria, responsible for the current situation.
IDF troops penetrated one kilometer into the southern Strip, deploying tanks and armored vehicles in open areas east of the border town of Rafah, including the disused international airport at Dahaniyeh, Gaza's only airport.
A unit from the Givati Brigade was also deployed to the northern Gaza border, ready to enter the Strip should militants resume Qassam rocket fire on southern Israel. On Wednesday morning, four such rockets were fired at the Negev region, falling in open areas and causing no casualties.
"We have no desire to remain in the Gaza Strip," National Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer told Israel Radio on Wednesday morning. "We want to bring our boy home, that's all."
Ahead of the ground invasion, an Israel Air Force aircraft attacked three bridges in central Gaza late Tuesday night. An IDF official said the attack was meant to prevent miltants from moving Shalit to different locations within Gaza.
According to information gleaned by the Palestinian Authority, Shalit is being held in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in southern Gaza. His captors may be considering moving him elsewhere, possibly to the Jabalya refugee camp, on the outskirts of Gaza City in the northern Strip.
IAF aircrafts also attacked a Gaza City power station after midnight Tuesday, cutting power to much of the area, Palestinian security officials said.
Just before the nighttime incursion, Israel ordered Palestinian security forces deployed near Rafah to leave their positions. The IDF then confirmed its forces had crossed the border, the first major ground offensive in the Gaza Strip since Israel pulled its troops last September.
Olmert approved a limited ground incursion in southern Gaza on Tuesday night, aimed at the "terrorist infrastructure," after consulting with the defense establishment earlier in the evening.
The IDF operation is designed to gain "bargaining chips" by taking control of the open areas, such as the area near Rafah and later the northern Gaza Strip.
Israel hopes that this will eventually lead to a diplomatic agreement that will include freeing the kidnapped soldier in return for ending the fire. Olmert has already rejected the idea of freeing Palestinian prisoners.
Olmert met Tuesday with Defense Minister Amir Peretz and heads of the defense establishment for the third time since Sunday's attack. The army's top brass came up with new ideas for a ground offensive after Olmert rejected previous plans as inadequate.
"Our aim is not to mete out punishment but rather to apply pressure so that the abducted soldier will be freed. We want to create a new equation - freeing the abducted soldier in return for lessening the pressure on the Palestinians," the prime minister said Tuesday.
The idea is to carry out a gradually stepped-up campaign, sources said, so as to make the diplomatic pressure on Hamas more effective.
The intelligence reports on the whereabouts of the missing soldier have also improved over the past three days. Sources said that Israel's initial decision to delay the attack and wait for the diplomatic contacts to yield results had led to the garnering of greater diplomatic support abroad.
In the Shajaiyeh neighborhood of Gaza City, not far from the border fence, armed militants took up positions before the troops moved in. The militants told residents to leave the area.
A leader of Hamas exhorted its fighters to confront the IDF troops. "Fight your enemies, who came to their deaths. Grab your rifles and resist," Nizar Rayan said in a radio message.
Some 2,500 Egyptian border guards were deployed in the Rafah area on Monday - the former Philadelphi Route - due to fears that the people who abducted Shalit would try to smuggle him into Egypt, Palestinian sources said.
The sources told Haaretz that according to intelligence information that had reached Egypt, the leaders of Hamas' military wing who are holding Shalit had considered smuggling him into the Egyptian part of Rafah through Palestinian tunnels in the area.
The idea was to increase the freedom of movement for the abductors who fear that Palestinians in Gaza might disclose information about his whereabouts.
A senior Military Intelligence officer said Tuesday that the IDF is working on the assumption that the soldier is being held in southern Gaza.
Speaking to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the Military Intelligence officer told lawmakers that the soldier sustained light wounds to his stomach and shoulder.
He said that there has been ongoing contact between exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, currently in Damascus, and the Gaza-based Ahmed Jabri, the Hamas military wing leader behind the attack.
A member of one of the militant groups that claimed responsibility for Sunday's attack said Tuesday that the Shalit was being held in a "secure place."
"The soldier is in a secure place that the Zionists cannot reach," said Mohammed Abdel Al, spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees.
The Military Intelligence officer said that the gunmen had tried to infiltrate the watchtower, and an explosion at the time took out the soldiers' electronic surveillance equipment. As a result, he said, the soldiers were unable to identify one of the groups of gunmen carrying out the three-pronged attack.
Olmert denies Hamas talks claimPalestinian Legislative Council Secretary and senior Hamas man Mahmoud Rahmi said Tuesday that Israel had proposed negotiations on releasing Palestinian militants jailed in Israel in exchange for information about Shalit.
Olmert denied Rahmi's claim, saying he had not made any appeal to Hamas, "not regarding the release of prisoners or otherwise." Olmert had the day before ruled out negotiations over a prisoner swap and vowed that Israel would respond fiercly to recent attacks from Gaza.
"This is not a matter of negotiations, this is not a matter of bargaining," Olmert said in his speech at a Jewish Agency gathering in Jerusalem on Monday night.
Olmert's statements came in the wake of a statement issued by the three militant groups who claimed responsibility for Sunday's attack on an IDF post, saying that they would provide information on the fate of Shalit in return for the release of Palestinian women and under-18s held in Israeli jails.
Shalit was the first to be seized by Palestinian militants since the 1994 abduciton of Corporal Nachshon Waxman, a 19-year-old Israeli-American soldier. At the time, Sayeret Matkal commandos stormed the safe house where Waxman was held, but he died in the raid along with a member of the rescue force and three of his Palestinian kidnappers.
Armed groups historically have used captured IDF soldiers, dead or alive, as a bargaining chip for the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.