KARNEI SHOMRON, West Bank — At least 50 Hamas terrorists have been killed since Israeli forces entered the Gaza Strip, beginning the long-anticipated ground phase of Operation Cast Lead.
An Israeli soldier died Sunday afternoon, several hours after being critically injured in a mortar attack near Jabalya. Some 33 Israeli soldiers have been injured, two seriously, since the ground invasion began Saturday night with a column of troops marching into northern Gaza following a day of heavy Israeli shelling near the border with artillery cannons.
The ground invasion began a week after the start of the Gaza operation, which until Saturday consisted of targeted airstrikes on Hamas infrastructure including rocket launchers, caches of weapons, weapons labs and training camps.
Operation Cast Lead was launched Dec. 26 following several days of intense Palestinian rocket fire on Israeli towns following the expiration of an informal six-month truce between Israel and Hamas.
At the opening of the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, held at the Kirya army base in Tel Aviv in order to accommodate top army leaders, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert addressed the families of the Israeli soldiers who had been sent into battle less than 24 hours before.
“I have thought about you a lot since the operation began, especially since the decision about a ground operation approached,” he said. “I asked myself and my ministerial colleagues if there was some other step, outlet or effort that we had not yet tried before sending our boys into a place fraught with such risks, from which some of them may not return.
“This morning I can look each one of you in the eyes and say that the government did its utmost before deciding on the operation. This operation was unavoidable.” Israeli troops in Gaza have divided the costal strip into two or three sections, according to reports, to prevent the transfer of weapons and terrorists from one sector to the other. Details of the operation have been embargoed by the military; most reports are coming from Palestinian sources.
In the first night of the ground invasion, Israeli soldiers exchanged gunfire with Hamas terrorists as Israeli Air Force planes struck more than 45 targets, including tunnels, weapons storage facilities, and rocket- and shell-launching squads and platforms, according to a statement from the Israel Defense Forces spokesman’s office. The Israeli navy also targeted Hamas strongholds, including its intelligence headquarters in Gaza City.
During the Cabinet meeting, military leaders took stock of Hamas’ situation.
“Hundreds of terrorists have been killed, while weapons and ammunition stocks have been destroyed, along with tunnels and rocket manufacturing facilities,” Military Intelligence Chief Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin told the Cabinet.
Yadlin said the Hamas government is no longer functioning.
Some senior Hamas leaders are considering a move towards a cease-fire, Shin Bet security chief Yuval Diskin told government leaders.
Despite the ground attack, rockets and mortar shells continue to rain down on southern Israel — 36 hit the area Sunday morning and early afternoon. Several buildings were damaged and people lightly injured in the attacks. One rocket scored a direct hit on a home in Sderot Sunday, injuring one woman.
Some 400 rockets have struck Israel since the Gaza operation began.
The Israeli army says the ground operation is aimed at destroying Hamas’ terrorist infrastructure and taking control of the areas from which rockets are being fired into Israel. A statement from the IDF spokesman’s office says the army has raised the level of alert for military forces in other areas of the country.
Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni approved the ground incursion during a meeting Friday night.
“The decision to embark on the ground phase of the operation was taken following in-depth consideration,” Barak said during an address to the nation and the media shortly after Israeli troops entered Gaza.
“We have carefully weighed all our options. We are not war hungry but we shall not — I repeat, we shall not — allow a situation in which our towns, villages and civilians are constantly targeted by Hamas. It will not be easy or short, but we are determined.”
Barak says Israel seeks peace.
“We have restrained ourselves for a long time, but now is the time to do what needs to be done,” he said. “We are determined to afford our citizens what any citizen anywhere in the world is entitled to — peace, tranquility and freedom from threats.”
The IDF began calling up thousands of reservists on Saturday. The majority are from combat units, a large number are from the Homefront Command and some are from other supporting units, according to the IDF spokesman’s office.
On Saturday, the Air Force dropped leaflets in areas of Gaza urging residents to leave their homes since the army would be operating in the area. Gaza residents complained in telephone interviews broadcast on CNN that the warnings were meaningless since they had nowhere else to go.
“Because of the terrorist actions carried out by some terrorist figures out of the area of residence against the State of Israel, the IDF was forced to immediately respond and act inside your area of residence,” the leaflets read. “For your own safety, you are required to leave the area immediately.”
The government has made it clear in several statements that it is not at war with the Palestinian civilians of Gaza, nor does it intend to retake the Gaza Strip.
“The IDF Spokesperson wishes to reiterate that the residents of Gaza are not the target of the operation,” read a statement issued Saturday shortly after the ground operation began. “Those who use civilians, the elderly, women and children as ‘human shields’ are responsible for any and all injury to the civilian population. Anyone who hides a terrorist or weapons in his house is considered a terrorist.”
Israeli spokesmen have taken to the airwaves, from CNN to Al-Jazeera, to reiterate the message that it is working to reduce civilian casualties. Most Hamas infrastructure, however, is buried deep within civilian neighborhoods, and Hamas has called on Palestinians to volunteer to serve as human shields, according to reports.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in a phone call with Olmert shortly after the ground invasion began, called on Israel to pull out of Gaza and to cease all violence. The U.N. Security Council met for four hours on Saturday night and adjourned without producing a statement. The United States blocked a resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire and expressing concern about the escalation of violence in the area.
President Bush blamed Hamas for the escalation in violence and said a true cease-fire must end the group’s rocket fire.
“This recent outburst of violence was instigated by Hamas — a Palestinian terrorist group supported by Iran and Syria that calls for Israel’s destruction,” Bush said in his weekly radio address Saturday. “Eighteen months ago Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in a coup, and since then has imported thousands of guns and rockets and mortars. Egypt brokered a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, but Hamas routinely violated that cease-fire by launching rockets into Israel.”
“The United States is leading diplomatic efforts to achieve a meaningful cease-fire that is fully respected,” said the U.S. leader, who is leaving office later this month. “Another one-way cease-fire that leads to rocket attacks on Israel is not acceptable. And promises from Hamas will not suffice — there must be monitoring mechanisms in place to help ensure that smuggling of weapons to terrorist groups in Gaza comes to an end.”
Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets in Tel Aviv Saturday night both for and against the Gaza operation. In the Israeli Arab town of Sankhin, some 10,000 demonstrators protested the operation — one of the largest rallies held by Israeli Arabs in many years, according to reports. Several Arab Knesset members, as well as mayors of Arab towns and Arab community leaders, joined the protest.