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In Ground Operation, Israel Expands and Deepens Its Control of Gaza

Three Israel Defense Forces soldiers from the Golani brigade were killed and about 20 others wounded, one critically, after an errant IDF tank shell hit a building in which they were operating.

The incident is the most grave so far for IDF troops in 10 days of Operation Cast Lead.

IDF battalion commander Colonel Avi Peled was lightly wounded in the incident, but refused to be taken for treatment. Instead, Peled directed the evacuation of all the wounded troops and called in artillery fire and IAF air strikes on enemy targets before evacuating himself from the scene.

The number of Palestinian dead Monday was estimated at about 100, although no official figure has been given.

The IDF tightened its hold Monday over the outskirts of the built-up area of Gaza City as it traded fire with Hamas militants.

The major firefight started at around 6:30 p.m. Monday in the Sajaiyeh neighborhood in east Gaza City. According to preliminary information gathered by the IDF, Hamas attacked with mortar shells that exploded near the troops.

Troops then apparently took shelter behind the wall of a building, after which a large explosion took place.

Hamas responded with additional mortar fire. In one of the strikes, near the border, two Israelis were wounded, one of them moderately.

Sajaiyeh, together with its adjacent neighborhoods, has been considered a Hamas stronghold for several years.

Sources in the IDF said the advance of the forces into the Strip forced the rocket-launching teams to retreat somewhat, with Sajaiyeh identified as main launch location. Practically no launches were seen from areas in which the IDF had taken control.

Still, over 40 Qassam and Grad rockets were fired Monday from Gaza at southern Israel striking Ashkelon, Ashdod, Sderot, Kiryat Malakhi, near Ofakim, Netivot and Beersheva. Hamas also fired rockets at the area between Ashdod and Gedera. A number of people in Sderot were treated for shock, and in Ashdod a rocket nearly destroyed a kindergarten. Inside Gaza, eight soldiers were slightly injured in other incidents in the Strip yesterday.

Over the past two days there have been at least two cases in which soldiers have been injured in “friendly fire,” one by machine gun fire and one during the detonation of an explosive device.

Monday was the third day of the ground phase of Cast Lead. Sources in the General Staff said the day was spent “expanding and deepening” control by forces on the ground. The IDF is now surrounding Gaza on the three land sides and maintaining a sea blockade. The Gaza Strip has also been sliced in two in the area where the Israeli settlement of Netzarim once stood.

IDF troops are going out on ambushes and attacks known as “response-stimulating” operations.

The General Staff estimated 100 Palestinians were killed Monday in five battles at various locations around the Strip. However, it appears that a large number of the dead were civilians.

The IDF arrested at least 80 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip Monday.

The infantry forces advanced yesterday under cover of heavy artillery and helicopter fire.

The Israel Air Force continued Monday to bomb tunnels on the border at Rafah, to prevent their renewed use by Hamas as supply tunnels along the Philadelphi Route.

A few of the approximately 80 Palestinians arrested by afternoon yesterday admitted in their initial interrogation to membership in Hamas. They were transferred to temporary detention facilities inside Israel.

According to reports from the Strip, extended firefights took place Monday in the Zeitun area as well as the northern strip, not far from the former Palestinian Authority liaison offices. The IDF bombarded the area heavily.

Over the past 24 hours, two Palestinian families were killed. In the Shati refugee camp the parents and five children of the Abu Aisha family were killed. In the Zeitun neighborhood, the seven members of the Salmuni family were killed. In another incident, a pregnant Palestinian woman and her four children were killed.

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