IDF invades Gaza: Israel Defense Forces ground troops entered the northern Gaza Strip on Saturday evening, as the army launched its long anticipated ground operation.
An officer and a soldier were seriously wounded during the night-time fighting against Palestinian gunmen. They were evacuated to the Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer. Eighteen other soldiers sustained light to moderate wounds.
Eleven of the injured troops were evacuated to the Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba for treatment.
Army officials confirmed that dozens of terrorists were hurt in clashes with IDF ground troops, saying some of them were killed. In several cases, armed terrorists approached Israeli forces and were shot at by ground troops and IDF gunships. There are no reports of Israeli casualties at this time.
Large IDF ground forces, including Armored and Engineering corps units, as well as infantry soldiers are currently operating in the Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun areas, from which rockets have been launched toward Israel.
The army is preparing to enter the third phase of the operation, which is expected to be much broader in scope. In this framework tens of thousands of reserve soldiers will be heading to training bases in north and south Israel during the early hours of Sunday morning.
The reserve soldiers may take part in the third phase of the operation or be deployed in central and northern Israel in case of escalation on those fronts.
"Calling up the reserves and gearing them up will provide us the flexibility we need in case of any development, particularly if the operation in Gaza is expanded," an army official explained.
A third of the reserve soldiers will receive new equipment as part of a five-year plan initiated by the IDF Logistics Corps following the Second Lebanon War. Other troops will have to make due with outdated gear.
A military official told Ynet that troops were advancing in northern Gaza according to plan.
"For the time being, we are facing several hubs of resistance, yet we are not dealing with massive resistance," he said. "Since we entered there have been no unusual incidents, and the troops are operating in line with pre-determined objectives."
Meanwhile, IDF Central Command Chief Yoav Galant has ordered to expand the closed military zone in the Gaza vicinity region so that it will include all areas west of Sderot, Ofakim and Netivot.
Saturday night, the Palestinians reported that the IDF attacked a fuel depot in Beit Lahiya. Meanwhile, the IDF imposed a 30-kilometer (roughly 20 miles) naval blockade on Gaza. The move was approved by Defense Minister Barak and was meant to prevent foreign vessels from reaching the combat zone.
Earlier in the evening, large infantry, engineering and intelligence forces entered the Strip, accompanied by armored corps and artillery units. Navy vessels and Air Force gunships also played a role in the operation. The troops entered various areas in northern Gaza and fire exchanges were reported soon after.
Determined to win war (Photo: Reuters)
"The objective is to destroy the Hamas terror infrastructure in the area of operations," said Major Avital Leibovitch, a military spokeswoman, confirming that incursions were under way. "We are going to take some of the launch areas used by Hamas."
Army Chief Gabi Ashkenazi met with troops before the incursion was launched, and made it clear that the army was fully determined to secure the operation's objectives.
"I have complete faith in you, the commanders and fighters," Ashkenazi told soldiers. "I count on you, I trust you, and I'm backing you. The people of Israel could not have asked for a better team of commanders and fighters."
Meanwhile, the IDF has started calling up thousands of reservists in the framework of emergency call-ups approved by the government. The objective of the call-up is to enable the IDF to expand the ground incursion if necessary.
Reservists have started to arrive at their bases Saturday evening and will continue to come in Sunday.
'It won't be easy'
In a statement to the media Saturday night, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the ground incursion will put Israeli troops in life danger.
"It won't be easy and it won't be brief," he said. 'We're continuing to expand the operation while being well aware that this move will include challenges, difficulties, and also victims. We are doing it because of the faith that at this time this is our duty to citizens of the country."
"Several hours ago, IDF troops entered the Gaza Strip," he said. "So far in the operation, the IDF, the Air Force, and the Intelligence Corps delivered a harsh blow against Hamas.
The defense minister stressed that he debated at length before ordering the ground incursion, adding that Israel was a peace-loving country and pledging that the IDF will have the upper hand by the operation's end.
Troops enter Gaza (Photo: Sky News/AFP)
"The decision to embark on the ground phase of the operation was taken following in depth consideration," he said. "Every alternative was examined thoroughly, while we examined every possible scenario."
"We won't abandon our citizens," Barak said. "The IDF's job is to defend the home front."
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Barak, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met Friday night and approved the ground incursion. The operation was approved in principle in the cabinet session 10 days ago.
Earlier in the day, artillery cannons started to shell targets in the Strip. The IDF said that by Saturday evening hundreds of shells had been fired at precise targets in Gaza. Much of Gaza was enveloped by darkness as night fell.
Meanwhile, Air Force aircraft continued to drop leaflets in Gaza, calling on residents to leave their homes in order to avoid injury. The leaflets dropped Saturday read: "Area resident, as result of the acts undertaken by terror activists in your area against Israel, the IDF is forced to respond immediately and operate in this area. For your own safety, you are asked to leave the area immediately."
Earlier Saturday, the Air Force attacked a vehicle in Khan Younis carrying Hamas officer Muhammad Maaruf and another group member. The two were reportedly killed in the strike. Saturday morning, a senior Hamas commander was assassinated.