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Israel launched a massive aerial offensive yesterday morning against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip. At least 225 Palestinians were killed, most of them Hamas operatives, and 750 wounded.

A 58-year-old Israeli, Bebert Vaknin of Netivot, was killed in a direct strike by a Grad Katyusha-type rocket on his home, and six others were wounded.

Israel is preparing for an operation expected to last several weeks, during which up to 200 Qassam rockets each day are expected to be fired from the Strip onto the communities of the western Negev.

"Operation Cast Lead" began around 11:30 A.M as 64 aircraft delivered over 100 tons of explosives on 50 to 100 Hamas targets in the Strip. The first wave lasted 3 minutes and 40 seconds with Palestinians reporting 205 killed and hundreds wounded. Shortly thereafter, 24 additional aircraft struck launch sites and other targets in the northern Strip. Sources in the security establishment attribute these strikes to the relatively low number of rockets launched from Gaza yesterday.

Hamas is currently focusing on firing rockets at areas it has already struck, including Ashkelon, Sderot, Netivot and other communities of the Gaza envelope.

Military sources estimate that Hamas and the smaller militant organizations are capable of firing around 200 rockets daily, including a smaller number of improved Katyushas able to reach targets 40 kilometers away.

A senior defense official told Haaretz yesterday, "We harmed their capabilities in a major way, in a number of aspects, but we are under no illusions - there will be more rockets, and the rocket fire will grow more severe than we have seen until now."

The IDF began preparing ground forces yesterday close to the Gaza Strip, including a number of infantry and tank brigades. A final decision on how many units to engage, and with how much force, has yet to be made.

Security officials emphasized that the operation's goal is not to stop Qassam fire but "to create a better security reality over the long term in the south by limiting rocket fire." They said Israel is not seeking to topple the Hamas government ruling the territory, but to weaken it and force a long-term ceasefire. In addition, the IDF has yet to call up a significant number of reserve forces.

Among the dead in the Strip were Gaza police chief Tawfiq Jabber, the head of Hamas special forces Ismail al-Ja'abari and the governor of the Central District of the Strip. Palestinian medical sources said thousands of residents were suffering from shock.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said yesterday, "The time has come to act. There is a time for calm and a time for fighting, and now is the time for fighting. We didn't intend to allow this reality in the south to continue."

"We will strike a forceful blow to Hamas in order to change the situation from its foundation and to operate so there won't be rocket fire or other activity from the Strip. I don't want to delude anyone - this won't be easy and it won't be quick," he said.

Hamas representatives yesterday threatened to send rockets as far as Ashdod. Military sources expect the group to launch massive rocket barrages on communities along the Gaza security fence, deploy snipers to fire on Israelis and attempt to send suicide bombers into Israel.