VIDEO - The Israel Air Force struck a number of targets in the Gaza Strip on Thursday afternoon and evening. The bodyguard of Interior Ministry Spokesman Khaled Abu Helal was killed in an attack on a guarding post near the spokesman's house.
At around 7:30 pm, the IAF struck a vehicle in the Rafah area in the southern Strip. The Palestinians reported that two civilians were killed in the attack.
The IDF confirmed the air strike, but said that the people killed in the attack were members of a rocket launching cell. The army added that the Palestinians were hit while launching rockets.
Earlier, two vehicles were attacked on al-Jala Street in central Gaza. Imad Shabaneh, a commander of a Qassam rocket manufacturing team, was critically injured. At lease five more Palestinians were wounded in the strikes.
IDF sources said that Shabaneh's car was carrying a large amount of weapons, including Qassam rockets. Shortly afterwards, another vehicle carrying Hamas members was attacked on the same street.
Simultaneously, the IAF struck a post of the Salah al-Din Brigades, the Popular Resistance Committees' military wing, in Beit Hanoun. There were no reports of injuries in this incident.
Earlier, the Air Force destroyed a Hamas security headquarters in Gaza City on Thursday, killing at least one person and wounding more than 30 people. According to eyewitnesses, innocent passersby were also injured in the attack.
Building attacked in Gaza (Photo: AP)
Simultaneously, Palestinians reported that the IDF attacked an Islamic Jihad cell in the northern Strip, but its members managed to flee the scene unharmed.
Also Thursday, IDF forces sent several tanks into the northern Gaza Strip near the town of Beit Lahiya. The tanks are several hundred meters inside the security fence, providing the IDF an additional means to battle Qassam rocket fire in the area.
This is the first time that IDF tanks have entered Gaza since the ceasefire took effect six months ago.
For the first time in many months, the military branch of Hamas announced that it would respond to Israel's attacks with suicide attacks inside Israel.
Since the lull was declared in March 2005, Hamas has not carried out suicide attacks inside Israel.
Evacuating injured in Gaza following air strike (Photo: AFP)
IDF officials said the military would continue to operate against terror organizations, and announced a “new policy” in the struggle against such organizations in Gaza, in accordance with a political echelon decision on Wednesday.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Thursday, "We must give the Palestinians the message that terror has its price: The Palestinian government is responsible for the aggressive acts, and it chooses not to control them."
Livni added that "we should ask ourselves what the most effective tool is in getting the Qassam attacks on Israel to stop. Our toolbox holds military operations and diplomatic operations."
During the months of restraint, the defense establishment has been following with concern Hamas' gaining in strength in the Strip. The group and other terror organizations have been amassing arms, including antitank missiles, which may be put to use in the current confrontation.
Until this week, the IDF refrained from a ground incursion in Gaza, concentrating instead on operations near the border fence in search of explosive devices. On Wednesday the IDF launched an air strike against a Hamas command post, an attack which marked an end to Israel's policy of restraint in the Strip.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni spoke with her German counterpart Thursday about the operation, and said that “in the absence of an effective plan by the international community to stop the rocket fire towards Sderot, Israel will act to end the attacks on its citizens.
“Israel expects the European Union to be involved in diplomatic efforts to stop Qassam fire,” Livni added, and demanded that Europe unequivocally condemn the rocket attacks.
Two people were lightly injured in the attack and several others suffered from shock.
Head of the Sha'ar Hanegev local council, Alon Shuster, said that there were still a few classrooms in the school which had not been fortified. "Only the students that had to take their matriculation exams came to school today, and they were placed in fortified classrooms," he stated.
Hanan Greenberg, Ali Waked, Ronny Sofer and Shmulik Hadad contributed to the report