CBNNews.com - GAZA STRIP - IDF (Israel Defense Forces) infantry, armored and artillery corps troops, accompanied by engineering and intelligence forces, entered the northern Gaza Strip Saturday evening for the first time since the start of Operation Cast Lead one week ago.
IDF spokeswoman Major Avital Leibovitch said the purpose of the ground incursion is to destroy rocket launch pads in northern Gaza, which are firing longer-range Grad-type Katyusha missiles into Israel.
"The objective is to destroy the Hamas terror infrastructure in the area of operations," Major Leibovitch said.
"We are going to take some of the launch areas used by Hamas," she said.
IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-General Gabi Ashkenazi spoke with troops before the ground operation began.
"I have complete faith in you, the commanders and fighters," the commander in chief told the soldiers.
"I count on you, I trust you, and I'm backing you," he said. "The people of Israel could not have asked for a better team of commanders and fighters," Ashkenazi said.
A few hours before troops entered the Strip, the Artillery Corp fired hundreds of shells at specific sites in northern Gaza.
During the day, the IDF hit more than 40 Hamas facilities, including weapons warehouses, terror training camps, rocket launch sites, a mosque, leader's residences and the group's central intelligence headquarters.
Senior Hamas commander Abu Zacharia al-Jamal was killed in an air strike on his residence, which also served as a weapons warehouse and meeting place for planning attacks.
An air strike killed senior Hamas officer Muhammad Maaruf, who was traveling by car with another operative in Khan Younis.
During the day, the air force dropped leaflets asking residents to leave the area for their own protection.
"Area resident: As a 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," the fliers read.
Meanwhile, reservists began arriving at their bases Saturday evening, as Defense Minster Ehud Barak addressed the nation.
"Several hours ago, IDF troops entered the Gaza Strip," Barak told the Israeli public. "So far in this operation, the IDF, Air Force and Intelligence Corps delivered a harsh blow against Hamas," he said.
"The decision to embark on the ground phase of the operation was taken after in-depth consideration," the defense minister said. "Every alternative and every possible scenario was thoroughly examined," he said.
"It won't be easy and it won't be brief," Barak said. "We're continuing to expand the operation while well aware that this move will include challenges, difficulties and also casualties. We are doing it because we believe it is our duty at this time to the citizens of the country," he said.
"We won't abandon our citizens. The IDF's job is to defend the home front," he said.
Sources: Ynet news, The Jerusalem Post