Parts of Gaza City were plunged into darkness early Wednesday in the wake of a series of Air Force missile strikes in the city, eyewitnesses reported.
The assault started after airplanes fired missiles at a building in the central Gaza Strip. The IDF said the building targeted was used for terror activity by the Popular Front, but the Palestinians said the structure served a charity and a school for neighborhood children.
Later, the army hit a building in Gaza City which it said was used for Fatah terror activity. Another building was hit in a northern Gaza Building, which the IDF said was used by the Popular Resistance Committees terror group. All the buildings that were attacked were badly damaged, as were nearby vehicles.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Interior Ministry warned locals to stay away from bombed locations for fear they could be hit again.
In addition, eyewitnesses reported that the IDF raided Hamas and Islamic Jihad offices in the West Bank. According to the reports, army vehicles arrived at the offices, troops entered them, searched the buildings and confiscated materials.
IDF fires artillery shells
On Tuesday IDF forces fired artillery shells at the Gaza Strip for the first time, following continued Qassam rocket attacks from Gaza on southern Israel. The first shells were fired to measure distance, and these were followed by four artillery shells fired on target.
Military officials said Israeli jets attacked the areas from which Qassam rockets have been launched in recent days, and a Fatah building has also been targeted. The IDF Spokesman Office said that the building was being used to carry out terror attacks.
Earlier, Palestinians launched two Qassam rockets at southern Israel. No injuries were reported in either attack.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz warned Hamas leaders to stop firing Qassam rockets at Israeli towns.
Mofaz said the IDF offensive against terror groups in Gaza will continue as long as attacks on Israeli communities continue, referring to the recent escalation in Qassam attacks on southern towns.
"We will be the ones making the decisions. Not (Hamas leader) Mahmoud al-Zaher or anyone else… and if the Hamas continues firing Qassams, we will send its leaders to the same place where (assassinated organization leaders) Rantisi and Yassin are," he added.
IDF positioned artillery guns in the south earlier today (Photo: AP)
Mofaz toured an IDF artillery positions overlooking Gaza Tuesday, was briefed by the battery's commanders, and spoke with the soldiers. The minister asked them to remain alert and attentive while safeguarding Israeli children. Mofaz also stressed the great responsibility the soldiers are entrusted with, namely to prevent the firing of Qassams at Sderot and the western Negev region.
"What Hamas did is unacceptable. It was responsible for the deaths of Palestinians in a rally in Jabaliya last Friday and falsely accusing Israel of attacking and injuring Palestinians. Then, in order to reinforce the lie, Hamas fired more than 20 Qassams at Sderot and the western Negev," Mofaz said.
"We will not remain silent. New rules and a new reality will be set here. If the children of Sderot are unable to sleep, Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders will not get a night's sleep as well," he said. "We will strike again and again until they realize that as a sovereign state, Israel cannot allow for this threat to civilians to continue."
'We have had extraordinary successes'
Mofaz stressed that the artillery battery he visited is not just "for show," but that it is operational and is set to respond to any Qassam attack in real time. The minister also made clear that the artillery is not aimed at targets within civilian population.
"We have other means to handle such targets. We have had extraordinary successes in carrying out targeted killings of terrorist leaders and of Qassam launchers, even when they were moving within residential areas. This was done with almost no civilian casualties," Mofaz said.
The defense minister referred to the possibility that the IDF will launch a ground assault in Gaza, and said that this is a "last resort." However, he added that if effective action is not achieved by the current means, a ground operation may be considered.
"As long as we can achieve our goals from the air, the sea and from outside the Strip, it is preferable. These kinds of operations diminish the risk to IDF soldiers,” he said.
'Why isn't Gaza shaking?'
Sderot mayor Eli Moyal said, "I saw a headline that Gaza would shake but Gaza is not shaking. They are not doing anything despite the fact that the IDF said it would do a lot. The response by the army is too little, too late, and it seems to me that this shooting once or twice to a certain area doesn't do a thing. I said before, and I repeat, that this ritual is repeating itself and we are still trapped in the circle of fear. It's time to strike Gaza hard. We also happen to have backing from Europe, America, the Left, and everyone, and I think they understand that the current situation can't go on."
Moyal added: "Mofaz said many things today and I heard them. So he said them. There's a huge gap between saying and doing. Now there are no more reasons (not to act), there are no more settlers in Gaza, there are no IDF forces in Gaza, and to my great surprise, even the Europeans understand our need to defend ourselves. I'm trying, but I can't understand how the minds of the decision makers work. I can only guess that Sharon, who promised that we are leaving Gaza so that we don't go into it, understands that going into Gaza is the only answer to the terror networks and the Qassam rocket launchers."
The Sderot mayor said that the residents of the southern Israeli city felt as he did. He said he saw their anger an rage, which is growing by the day, and said he was even physically attacked by residents.
"I make sure to arrive at every place where a Qassam rocket falls, and I am cursed at, humiliated, and even physically hit," he said.
"They attack me and I guess they'll continue to attack me. Last Friday, residents cursed at me and began to hit me, only the police managed to rescue me, and this isn't the first or second time. But I understand the rage of the residents and I will continue to arrive at these places because the prime minister and the defense minister are not giving them (the residents) explanations, and that's why, from their perspective, I represent the establishment, the prime minister, and the defense minister, and I receive the rage that is directed at them."
Islamic Jihad pledges end to Qassam fire; rocket attacks continue
A short time after the barrage of artillery shells senior Islamic Jihad figure Muhammad al-Hindi said that the group would stop firing Qassams at Israel, but would "reserve its right to avenge Israeli activities."
Meanwhile, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia blamed Israel for the deteriorating security situation, saying, “the international community must intervene and stop the continued Israeli attack on the Palestinian people and work to end the targeted killings policy Israel is conducting.”
Qureia also criticized the recent arrests of wanted West Bank Palestinians carried out by Israel, referring to it a “barbaric aggression.”
“Palestinian blood has become a toll in Israel’s internal political battles,” he said.
“More and more signs point to the fact that the withdrawal from Gaza is actually turning into a redeployment of IDF forces and not a real withdrawal.”
The Palestinian PM also praised the Plaestinian factions for their decision to refrain from organizing additional military processions and stop the firing of Qassams from Gaza toward Israel.
Also on Tuesday, PA Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas met in Ramallah with U.S. Envoy William Ward. Abbas promised Ward that the pa would make every effort to stop the armed Palestinian groups and asked that the Americans intervene and pressure Israel to the attacks on the Palestinians.
Ali Waked, Ronny Sofer and Reuters contributed to the story