Rocket fire continues after relatively quiet night: A Qassam rocket fired from the northern Gaza Strip on Thursday morning exploded near a kibbutz in the Sha'ar Hanegev Regional Council in southern Israel.
There were no reports of injuries, but the kibbutz's fence sustained light damage. At least nine mortar shells landed in the area without causing injuries.
About two hours later, two additional blasts were heard in the Sa'ar Hanegev Regional Council, but the rockets' landing site was not located. The Salah al-Din Brigades, the Popular Resistance Committee's military wing, claimed responsibility for the rockets.
One more rocket landed in the area at around 3:30 pm, and another hit the Ashkelon Coast Regional Council just before 4 pm without causing injuries or damage.
At around 8 pm a Qassam rocket landed next to Ashkelon's industrial district. No casualties or damages were reported.
A mortar shell fired at the Erez crossing in the northern Gaza Strip in the late morning hours hit the crossing hall's ceiling, not far from a group of 150 Palestinian pilgrims making their way to Bethlehem and several patients headed to Israeli hospitals for medical treatment.
The mortar did not explode on impact, but caused damage. There were no injuries in the incident.
The pilgrims' transfer into Bethlehem was delayed for a while, but the Defense Ministry's crossing administration planned to resume the crossing's activities a few hours later. The Erez crossing's ceiling cannot be fortified, but alternative means of protection are aimed at reducing the impact of a hit.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni
headed to Cairo on Thursday morning for a meeting
with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who tried to dissuade Israel from implementing its decision to operate in Gaza. She presented him with the Israeli demand to restore a state of calm.
Livni and Mubarak in Cairo (Photo: AP)
Thursday's rocket fire followed a particularly stormy day
in the Gaza vicinity, with some 60 rockets and mortar shells hitting the area.
Following an instruction issued by the National Security Cabinet
on Wednesday, the defense establishment has began preparing for a gradual operation, which according to estimates will end only after Hamas
agrees to renew the ceasefire.
Most Hamas gunmen in Gaza went into hiding
on Wednesday for fear of a harsh Israeli response to the heavy rocket and mortar barrages emanating from the Strip.
Meanwhile, the IDF has begun preparing
for a military operation. The operation will go forth according to all stipulations unless Hamas ceases its fire.
Military officials said the IDF would enter Gaza when the weather and other factors allowed for the operation to go forth. It will be conducted mostly through air strikes. The officials said Israel did not intend to recapture Gaza, but merely to put pressure on the terror organizations.
An IDF official said Wednesday that "our goal is to make Hamas come to a decision that the fire must stop, and this goal can be accomplished by a military operation, which is unpreventable in the current situation." Other officials said many of the preparations for the operation had already been completed.
"An operation can be carried out in many ways," one official said. "There is a wide selection of tools we can use, and we don’t have to use them all at once."
Israel has reached a decision to deal Hamas a severe blow in Gaza, and, barring a major change in the Islamist group's stance, is merely waiting for the most opportune time to strike.
Hanan Greenberg and Roni Sofer contributed to this report