The sources denied Palestinian reports of civilians and children being among the dead, stating that the fatalities were gunmen affiliated with Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
The IDF Southern Command stressed that all the Palestinian casualties, with the exception of one Islamic Jihad operative whose death was still investigated, had been killed during exchanges of fire with IDF troops operating in north and southern Gaza.
"The high number of casualties indicates that more terrorists were engaging battle with IDF forces. We anticipated such resistance and were ready for it," said the sources.
Wounded child in Gaza (Photo: AP)
Many gunmen, said the sources, were acting on their frustration from the situation in Gaza, which may explain "the fierce fighting we've encountered, which was more intense than usual."
Hamas parliament faction spokesman Salah Bardawil said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas may have requested from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to attack the Gaza Strip, but was "surprised that the Israelis agreed to the request, since they didn't honor other requests that he made."
Media outlets have been claiming since the morning that Wednesday's operations were one outcome of the Sharm el-Sheikh summit.
Abbas, during a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, censured Israel for its operations in Gaza, which he labeled a "crime."
'Defensive - not offensive'Earlier Wednesday, several dozen Palestinians were held for questioning in southern Gaza. This operation, stated military sources, came amid reports indicating that terrorist organizations are planning an attack on Israel.
"This isn't about taking over Gaza. These are pinpointed raids aimed at destroying terrorist infrastructure," said sources in the IDF Southern Command.
The IDF's Gaza Division is free to operate up to 1.3 miles into the Strip's side of the security fence. The Southern Command can determine how broad the operations are, in accordance with general IDF directives.
Wednesday's operation, said the military, was not unusual, and does not indicate any change in IDF policy. By the afternoon, forces had completed operations in the north and left the area, although troops were still active in southern Gaza.
"If we don't act in this way, we'll see more abduction attempts and more attacks," the sources said, emphasizing that the nature of the operation was defensive - not offensive.
Two IDF soldiers were mildly injured when an anti-tank missile hit their tank.