Israeli troops on Friday launched a much-expected ground operation into Gaza, trading heavy fire with Hamas militants after week-long airstrikes on the coastal strip killed over 460 Palestinians.
A heavy exchange of fire was reported between Israeli troops and Hamas militants inside the Gaza Strip shortly after the ground operation was launched with an aim to destroy Hamas' infrastructure and to take control of rocket launching pads to prevent rocket fire, the Haaretz daily reported.
"The objective is to destroy the Hamas terror infrastructure in the area of operations," said military spokesperson and Israel Defense Forces Major Avital Leibovitch.
The ground offensive intends to strike a "direct and hard blow" on Hamas with a long term objective of bringing about an improved and more stable security situation for residents of Southern Israel, the spokesperson said, adding, "we are going to take some of the launch areas used by Hamas".
"The Israel Defence Forces is planning to take over rocket launching areas from where rockets have been fired over the past weeks and months," Premier Ehud Olmert's office said after troops entered the impoverished coastal strip.
As it began the operation, the IDF warned that militants using civilians as human shields "would bear the full responsibility for their fate," the Jerusalem Post said.
Meanwhile, the cabinet approved the proposal of calling on duty thousands of reserve soldiers for the operation.
Several hours before the ground operation commenced, the army began pounding northern Gaza with artillery shells, which houses Hamas's strongholds including the rocket launching pads used for firing missiles into Israeli territory.
Israeli fighter jets and gunboats pounded dozens of Hamas positions in which the third top most Hamas leader in the Gaza was killed, as the offensive against the Hamas entered the second week.
At least 16 Palestinians, including four young boys, were killed when an air raid targetted a mosque during prayers in the northern town of Jabaliya. More than 200 people were offering prayers inside the mosque at the time of the attack.
Dozens were also injured in the strike on Ibrahim al-Maqadna mosque, which was reduced to rubble, medics said.
Among the dead were four children -- two of them brothers aged 10 and 12 and two cousins under 16, medics said.
Earlier reports said that some 10,000 troops, including tank, artillery and special operations units, were massed on the Gaza border prepared to invade.
The air force struck more than 40 Hamas targets today, killing a third senior Hamas official.
Abu Zakaria al-Jamal, a commander of the Hamas armed wing, died of wounds sustained in an air strike overnight. Nizar Rayan, a firebrand hardliner was killed with his four wives and 11 children on Thursday.
Israeli jets on Friday targeted the home of Hamas military wing commander Imad Akel, a senior Hamas operative.
"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," Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told a TV channel tonight.