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An Israeli air strike yesterday killed a high-ranking Hamas official in Gaza along with nine women, including at least four wives, and 11 of his children, in the first major assassination since the Israel Defense Forces launched Operation Cast Lead.

According to sources from the defense establishment, decision-makers are increasingly inclined to order a ground invasion into Gaza.

The assassination of Nizar Ghayan, which was carried out in an air raid, left dozens of people from neighboring buildings injured and brought up the body count on the Palestinian side to 425 people dead from Israeli raids since the operation's launching last Saturday. The number of wounded is now estimated at around 2,000.

The IDF Spokesman said that Ghayan's house had served as a weapons silo and a war room for Hamas. Under the house, according to the IDF, was a tunnel which was meant to serve as an escape route in case of an Israeli attack.

Palestinian media reported that the incident was not a planned assassination, but rather a routine bombing of a target suspected by the IDF to contain weapons.

The IDF has code named such operations "roof knocking," in which the army informs the residents of s suspected building that they have 10 minutes to leave the premises. In some cases, residents of suspected houses have been able to prevent bombing by climbing up to the roof to show that they will not leave, prompting IDF commanders to call off the strike.

Sources familiar with Ghayan's record said he was one of the people who encouraged Gazans to climb on rooftops to prevent bombings.

It appears that the "roof knocking" technique was used in the assassination, but Ghayan decided to stay indoors with his family, and the army opted to bomb the house anyway.

A lecturer at Gaza's Islamic University, Ghayan, 49, had mentored suicide bombers and would sometimes go on patrol with Hamas fighters. He was known for his close ties to the group's military wing and was respected in Gaza for donning combat fatigues and personally participating in clashes against Israeli forces. He sent one of his sons on an October 2001 suicide mission that killed two Israeli settlers in Gaza.

He was also an outspoken advocate of renewing suicide bombings against Israel. Hamas said Israel would pay a "heavy price" for his death. Ghayan was one of the most extreme opponents of Fatah, and supported violence against Fatah's men during Hamas' seizure of power.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni rejected calls for a 48-hour "humanitarian pause" and told her French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner, that Hamas must not be given the opportunity to gain any sort of legitimacy within a renewal of a truce. Under the current offensive, she said, Hamas understand that Israels will not tolerate Gaza rocket fire without response.

In addition to the assassination, the Israel Air Force bombed several other Hamas targets.

Hamas fired about a dozen rockets into Be'er Sheva and near Ashdod, resulting in no injuries.

Awaiting a decision by the political leadership, ground forces of the IDF are in the final stages of preparations for an invasion into Gaza, and the army has amassed the forces outside the Strip in formation for a rapid deployment in the area as soon as the order is given.

But even as IDF tanks rev their engines, various international powers are offering to broker a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel. The IDF is recommending a major, but relatively short-term, ground offensive in the Gaza Strip.

"I think that even now, after a few days of operation we have achieved changes", Livni said. "We affected most of the infrastructure of terror within the Gaza Strip and the question whether it's enough will be according to an assessment on a daily basis."

Livni, who met Sarkozy in France yesterday ahead of his planned visit here next week, said Israel intended to "change the reality" in and around Gaza. Israeli officials say this would entail ending Palestinian rocket salvoes that have sown chaos in southern Israel.

"We want to weaken Hamas in the Gaza Strip. At the end of the day, Hamas is a problem not only to Israel but to the entire Palestinian people," she said.

Egypt's foreign minister yesterday once more laid the blame for the hostilities on Hamas, saying that it must ensure rocket fire ends in any truce deal to halt Israel's assault. Ahmed Aboul Gheit also criticized the Palestinian militants for "giving Israel an excuse" to launch the bombardment.

Gheit's comments came as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, as part of a tour by the Turkish leader to work out an Egyptian-Turkish initiative to end the violence.

Barak Ravid contributed to this article