VIDEO - Operation "Summer Rains" begins: Israeli tanks and troops rolled into the southern Gaza Strip early Wednesday, after mediators said hope of recovering kidnapped soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit through talks was running out.
IDF artillery shells were fired toward Gaza as the ground forces entered the Strip.
The incursion came shortly after Palestinian security forces deployed near the Gazan border town of Rafah said they were ordered out by the Israeli military.
Israeli Air Force planes targeted missiles at three bridges in the central Gaza Strip shortly before midnight Tuesday. After completing the deployment of forces to the area, the army entered “battle regulations” – or the state of preparation to launch an offensive.
According to the IDF, the aim of blowing up the bridges was to minimize the chances that Shalit, whom the expected incursion aims to rescue, would be moved from place to place by his abductors. The bridges lie on one of the main roads linking the north and south of the Gaza Strip.
Later Palestinian sources reported that Israeli warplanes attacked one of the bridges for a second time, and before daybreak warplanes flew low over Gaza city, causing sonic booms and breaking windows.
Shortly after the IDF forces entered Gaza a spokesman for the Izz el-Din el-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, said the offensive may result in Shalit's death, adding that the kidnapped soldier may be held in any house in Gaza.
The Popular Resistance Committees threatened to kill settler teen Eliyahu Asheri if IDF forces do not pull out of Gaza.
At around 1:30 a.m. five missiles were fired at a power station in south Gaza; blackouts were reported some Gaza areas, but partial power in Gaza City was restored by tapping into electricity supplied by Israel in northern Gaza.
Israeli Ambassador to the United States Danny Ayalon said early Wednesday that Israel will end its military offensive ion Gaza if kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit is released in good health.
The ambassador told CNN that Israel does not want to harm civilians.
Pursuant to a situational analysis among senior members of the defense establishment with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Tuesday evening, it was concluded that time is running out and it is necessary to act forcefully to achieve the release of Shalit. Defense Minister Amir Peretz said, during a speech in Latrun, "The clock is ticking regarding the soldier's return. The IDF is prepared and willing to act."
Prayers before the operation (Photo: Amir Cohen)
Peretz emphasized that Israel will exhaust all options in order to rescue Shalit. In a ceremony honoring the fifty-year anniversary of the Sinai Campaign, he added that "the current situation cannot continue. The Palestinian leadership is responsible for the life of the kidnapped soldier and we are willing to exact the price from anyone who is holding him captive."
'Small city' improvised on border
Prior to the Gaza operation the IDF constructed an improvised "small city" near the border, into which numerous tanks, APCs, and heavy equipment were delivered. IDF forces from Givati, Golani, and tank brigades arrived to the area steadily since Monday. Soldiers were busy all day attending briefings about safety and preparing the equipment. The logistics division supplyied tents, commodes, showers, generators, food and even a small canteen.
Intensive intelligence efforts were being made to locate Shalit. Fearing that his abductors would attempt to smuggle him out of the Strip into Sinai via tunnels, by sea or by land, a full closure was imposed on Gaza.
Officials in Jerusalem clarified that diplomatic efforts in the international arena were continuing, with the hopes of locating the kidnapped soldier and gaining his release. In the past two-and-a-half days, however, IDF forces were preparing for the possibility of a large-scale incursion aiming to rescue the hostage.
Palestinians prepare for incursion
Palestinians in the Gaza Strip prepared for the Israeli operation, and on Monday night members of the Palestinian organizations erected roadblocks on central routes the Israeli army may want to use.
Planting obstructions on the roads (Photo: Reuters)
Members of Hamas, the Popular Resistance Committees and other organizations placed large piles of rubble and sand in the midst of roads in a bid to impede army forces' advancement. A Jabalya resident told Ynet that the operatives used tractors to carry stones that were scattered on the roads. In other places in the Strip, similar activities were carried out.
Reuters, AP, Ronny Sofer, Hanan Greenberg, Ali Waked and Aviram Zino contributed to the report.