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A large contingent of Israel Defense Forces infantry and armor units moved into the ruins of former settlements in northern Gaza late Wednesday and early Thursday, after Qassam rockets fired from the area hit the southern coastal city of Ashkelon for the second time in two days.

"The purpose of this operation is to remove the threat of Palestinian rockets on Israeli towns and communities and to provide Israeli citizens with peace and tranquility as they sit in their homes and go about their daily lives. Israel also continues ongoing efforts to bring about the safe and expedient release of our soldier Corporal Gilad Shalit and efforts will go on unabated," David Baker, an official in the Prime Minister's Office, said Thursday.

Army spokesman Captain Jacob Dallal said the operation was a "limited incursion [in northern Gaza] ... to ensure the release of our abducted soldier and to stop the rocket fire into Israel."

Before daybreak, IDF troops and around 15 tanks entered the sites of the former settlements of Nissanit, Dugit and Elei Sinai. As ground forces edged forward, artillery and Israel Air Force aircraft struck targets in the area, aiming at bases and groups of militants.

"Our presence there doesn't mean that we intend to remain in the Gaza Strip. We simply want to prevent firing at our towns," Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer told Army Radio on Thursday.

Hamas officials said one militant was killed and another wounded in an airstrike on a Gaza beach early Thursday. The IDF confirmed that aircraft hit an armed militant.

The new contingent of troops is preparing for a relatively extended stay, unlike in other areas of the Gaza Strip where the IDF has been operating this past week.

It intends to capture a broad swath of territory of about one-and-a-quarter kilometers into Palestinian Authority territory, close to Beit Hanun, in an effort to hinder Qassam rocket launchers from targeting Ashkelon and to push them back toward Gaza City and the Jabalya refugee camp.

"We won't sink in the Gaza swamp, but will enter any necessary area to carry out our missions," Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Wednesday.

The operation, consisting of Golani infantry, armored, and engineering forces, is under the command of Golani Brigade commander Colonel Tamir Yadai.

At a later stage, the IDF intends to reduce the forces, but to launch raids into the Gaza Strip, including built-up areas, as required, accompanied by massive air force activity over the areas from which the Qassam rockets were fired.

At this stage, Israel does not intend to enter densely-populated Palestinian towns and villages, but if Qassam fire persists, raids into these areas may be held at later stages.

The IDF is concerned by the possible use of anti-tank missiles or bombs against its troops.

Large IDF forces are continuing to act in three additional areas in the Gaza Strip - the Erez pass, the outskirts of Beit Hanun in the northern strip, and the Dahaniya airport in the southern area.

Palestinians said that a Hamas militant and a coastal policeman were killed Wednesday night, the former in an IAF strike and the latter in an explosion on a northern Gaza beach.

Israel denied that the blast on Beit Lahiya's beach had been caused by shelling from a Navy gunship, but a military spokesman confirmed IAF aircraft attacked a cell of militants planting explosives near the border.

Also Wednesday, witnesses said a car carrying reporters from the Al-Jazeera Arabic satellite TV channel came under fire by militants in Beit Lahiya shortly before midnight.

One of the wounded reporters, Wael Dahdouh, said the militants apparently believed the car to be carrying undercover Israeli agents.

More Qassams hit AshkelonEight people were lightly wounded Wednesday evening in the Qassam strikes on Ashkelon. One of the rockets slammed into a southern neighborhood and the second landed in the Zikim area. Eight people suffered from shock, including two seven-year-old children, and were treated by Magen David Adom paramedics.

Hamas' military wing claimed responsibility for the two Qassam rockets fired into Ashkelon.

David Baker, an official in the Prime Minister's Office, said "Israel will not allow its cities and towns to be bombarded by Palestinian rocket attacks. We will take the necessary steps to put an end to these attacks and to allow our citizens to live in peace in their own homes and communities. The firing of rockets at Ashkelon is a serious escalation taken by Palestinian terrorists. Israel will not tolerate these attacks nor any other attack on its citizens and we will deal with this threat appropriately."

Palestinians first hit Ashkelon with a Qassam on Tuesday evening. Defense Minister Amir Peretz subsequently instructed the military to intensify its operations and IAF missiles hit the Palestinian Interior Ministry building in Gaza City in a pre-dawn strike Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the security cabinet met Wednesday morning to discuss Israel's response to the first Qassam strike on the city Tuesday evening. The strike on Ashkelon was the furthest north that a Qassam fired from Gaza has reached. The rocket hit an empty parking lot of the ORT Ronson High School building, causing light damage but no injuries.

The Hamas military wing, Iz al-Din al-Qassam, on Tuesday night claimed credit for the attack on Ashkelon.

The militant group said the rocket was an upgraded version of the original Qassam, reaching a range of 15 kilometers. But the IDF later disputed the claim, saying the rocket possessed a range of 12 kilometers.

The army says the rocket was launched from the northern-most point of the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanun. The dual-engined rocket traversed the longest distance of a projectile ever launched from the Gaza Strip.

"This is a major escalation in the war of terror that the Hamas organization is responsible for," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in a Tuesday night speech at the home of U.S. Ambassador to Israel Richard Jones. The attack was an "attempt meant to harm Israeli civilians that live within the sovereign borders of Israel, and it will have far-reaching consequences," the prime minister continued. "The Hamas organization will be the first to feel this."

Northern Gaza clashesHamas gunmen skirmished earlier in the day with IDF units that moved into parts of the northern Gaza border town of Beit Hanun, witnesses said.

In Gaza City, three people were wounded in the strike on the Interior Ministry building, the second such assault in the space of a week, rescue workers said. Witnesses said missiles hit the main structure again and damaged a building next to the ministry.

The two top floors of the main building collapsed, and the second building, which provided housing for ministry employees, was set on fire, witnesses said. Medics rushed children from the second building to hospital to be treated for shock.

The IDF operation in Gaza was launched seven days ago, in an effort to secure the release of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, who was abducted from his military post near the Gaza border in a raid that left two of his comrades dead.

The IAF also targeted an empty school in northern Gaza in the early hours of Wednesday, which the IDF spokeswoman said was used by Hamas activists at night. There were no reports of injuries.

At least two Palestinians were killed on Wednesday afternoon in an explosion in the Gaza Strip's Zeitoun neighborhood. Islamic Jihad operative Abu Ahmed Dahdouh and an associate died in the blast. Israel denied involvement.