Raw Video Of IDF heading toward Gaza border : For the first time since the start of Operation Cast Lead, IDF ground troops entered the Gaza Strip on Saturday evening, exchanging fire with Hamas gunmen.
The army confirmed that between 20 to 30 Hamas terrorists were killed during clashes with infantrymen.
The Navy was imposing a blockade on the water near Gaza to prevent Hamas from receiving assistance through Gaza's coastline.
The military also bombed a gas storage facility in the northern part of the Strip, and TV channels showed footage of flames lighting the pitch-dark Gaza sky for a lengthy period of time.
The IDF said that a large amount of troops from the Armored Corps, Engineering Corps and Infantry Corps entered the territory with the purpose of destroying Hamas infrastructure and preventing rocket fire by taking control of launching pads "in order to greatly reduce the quantity of rockets fired at Israel and Israeli civilians."
The IDF warned that terrorists using civilians as human shields would bear full responsibility for their fate. The IDF spokesperson emphasized that "anyone who hides a terrorist or weapons in his house is considered a terrorist," adding that "the residents of Gaza are not the target of the operation."
An explosion and illumination...
An explosion and illumination flares fired by Israeli forces are seen above the northern Gaza Strip from the Israeli side of the border with Gaza, Saturday.
The army reiterated that the operation was in line with "decisions of the Security Cabinet," saying that this stage of the operation was "part of the IDF's overall operational plan, and will continue on the basis of ongoing situational assessments by the IDF General Staff."
The cabinet also approved the call-up of thousands of reservists, mostly from combat units, but also from the Home Front Command.
Army spokeswoman Maj. Avital Leibovich said it would be an extensive operation. "We have many, many targets," she said, adding that Hamas has been digging smuggling tunnels and other facilities. "To my estimation, it will be a lengthy operation," she said.
Several hours before the ground operation commenced, the army began to fire artillery shells into the northern part of the Strip.
According to reports, the artillery units were attacking targets in northern Gaza from where Palestinian terrorists had been firing rockets at southern Israel.
Warplanes, gunboats and artillery units blasted more than 40 Hamas targets throughout Saturday, including Hamas's central intelligence headquarters in Sha'ati, weapons storage facilities, training centers and Hamas leaders' homes.
Air strikes that had waned during the day gathered pace after dark. One raid hit a mosque in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya, killing 14 people and wounding 33, seven critically, according to a Palestinian health official.
Other Palestinian reports claimed that the mosque was hit by an artillery shell.
The IAF also hit the home of senior Hamas commander Abu Zacharia Al-Jamal. A Hamas spokesman announced that al-Jamal was killed in the attack, which would make him the third senior operative in the group to be targeted in the past three days.
In addition, Palestinians reported four dead in an IAF strike in the Rafah area.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told Channel 2 Saturday night, "We will do all that is necessary to provide a different reality for southern Israel, which has been under constant attacks for the past eight years."
In Saturday morning attacks, the army struck the homes of two Hamas operatives, saying the buildings were used to store weapons and plan attacks. Hamas outposts, training camps and rocket launching sites also were targeted, it said.
The army also struck the American International School, the most prestigious educational institution in Gaza. The school is not connected to the US government, but teaches an American curriculum in English.
The airstrike demolished the school's main building and killed a night watchman. Two other Palestinians were killed in a separate airstrike, while three others died of wounds sustained earlier, Gaza health officials said.
Earlier, the army dropped leaflets in downtown Gaza City ordering people off the streets. The warnings were followed by the air strikes.
Hamas also declared on Saturday that its members had foiled an attempt by IDF special forces to infiltrate the Gaza Strip, Israel Radio reported.
According to the report, a number of IDF soldiers were spotted in the outskirts of Gaza's Shajaiyeh neighborhood close to the border with Israel. Hamas claimed that the soldiers retreated after they were targeted by six mortar shells.
The IDF denied the report, telling Army Radio that "this incident never happened."
Earlier on Friday night, a Hamas television station said that the IAF on bombed an airport in the Gaza Strip. One person was reported dead in the attack, and five wounded. :
STATEMENT BY THE MINISTER OF DEFENCE, MR. EHUD BARAK:
“A few hours ago, Israeli ground forces entered the Gaza Strip as part of operation Cast Lead against the Hamas terrorists and their affiliates and infrastructure in Gaza.
So far, the Israeli Defense Forces have dealt an unprecedented heavy blow to Hamas. In order to complete their mission we now launched the ground operation.
I have said all along that our military activities will widen and deepen as much as needed. Our aim is to force Hamas to stop its hostile activities against Israel and Israelis from Gaza, and to bring about a significant change in the situation in Southern part of Israel.
We have carefully weighed all our options. We are not war hungry but we shall not, I repeat – we shall not allow a situation where our towns, villages and civilians are constantly targeted by Hamas. It will not be easy or short, but we are determined.
We are well aware of the humanitarian aspect and are doing and will continue to do everything possible to provide all humanitarian needs to Gaza.
While we are fighting in Gaza, we keep an open eye on the sensitive situation in our northern border. We have no aggressive intentions there. We hope the situation there will remain calm; nevertheless we are ready and alert to face any unwarranted development in that area.
We are peace seekers. We have restrained ourselves for a long time but now is the time to do what needs to be done. We are determined to afford our citizens what any citizen anywhere in the world is entitled to – peace, tranquility and freedom from threats”.