CBNNews.com - JERUSALEM, Israel - At a press conference Saturday afternoon, Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced that Israel launched an offensive in the Gaza Strip in response to escalating rocket fire on western Negev communities.
At 11:30 a.m., approximately 60 Israel Air Force (IAF) jet fighters and helicopters targeted Hamas bases, weapons warehouses, compounds and underground facilities.
Palestinian sources reported 205 people killed in the attacks. Most were Hamas operatives.
"I don't want to mislead anyone," Barak said. "This won't be easy and it won't be short, but we must be determined," he said.
"The time has come to act. We do not go to this clash gladly, but neither are we afraid of it," Barak said.
"We will not let terrorists hurt our citizens or soldiers. We will do what is necessary," he said.
"For weeks, Hamas and its affiliates have lobbed Kassam [rockets], Grad [missiles] and mortar shells on the towns and communities in the South. We have no intention of allowing this situation to continue," the defense minister said.
Barak listed three objectives to the operation, named "Operation Cast Lead," after a Hanukkah poem by H.N. Bialik referring to a "dreidel [Hanukkah spinning top] cast from solid lead."
- Stopping the incessant rocket attacks against Israelis
- Dealing a forceful blow to the Hamas infrastructure
- Changing the situation in the Gaza Strip
Barak said the IDF has been preparing for the operation for several weeks.
"The war on terror is an ongoing one and we must be patient if we want to change the situation," he said, adding that Israel is "a nation that seeks life."
"We must do everything to restore calm," he said.
Despite the air offensive, the rocket strikes continued Saturday. More than 80 rockets and mortar shells rained down on Israeli communities in the western Negev.
In Netivot, south of the coastal city of Ashkelon, 58-year-old Beber Vaknin was killed, another man seriously injured and four others moderately hurt when a rocket scored a direct hit on their home.
Defense officials said Israelis could expect barrages of 150 to 200 rockets daily during the operation.
At least 10 rockets landed in Ashkelon, one damaging an apartment building.
Kiryat Gat residents experienced their first rocket attack, and one person was seriously injured and a second lightly injured in the town of Mivtahim when a rocket hit a home.
The Defense Department issued a "Special Situation in the Home Front," which allows the IDF to issue orders, such as closing schools and businesses, to protect residents.
Depending on the proximity to rocket fire, Israelis were instructed to remain within 15, 30 and 45 seconds of bomb shelters.
The Home Front Command also opened a hotline, which can be accessed from any land line or cell phone.
Magen David Adom -- the nation's national rescue service -- was put on highest alert, with 200 ambulances standing by to respond, as needed.
Meanwhile, several major political parties, including Likud, Labor, Shas and Yisrael Beitenu, announced suspension of their campaigns for the February 10 general elections in view of the Gaza operation.
Likud chairman and opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu backed the government's decision to respond to the rocket attacks and called for unity.
Sources: YNet news, The Jerusalem Post, Haaretz