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Israel continuing preparations for possible Gaza ground incursion
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As the Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip entered its second day, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on Sunday proceeded to make preparations for a possible ground incursion while its air force continued strikes on the Hamas-ruled enclave.

According to Mo'aweya Hassanein, chief of emergency and ambulance services in the Palestinian Health Ministry, nearly 300 Palestinians were killed and more than 900 wounded, 180 of them in critical conditions, since the beginning of the intensive Israeli airstrikes on Gaza on Saturday morning.

Despite the apparent blow to Hamas, the IDF continued its preparations for a possible ground incursion into Gaza.

In its Sunday meeting, Israeli cabinet approved that the IDF will call 6,500 reservists to duty, as part of the Israeli offensive on Gaza, called "Cast Lead" operation.

Local daily Ha'aretz quoted Israeli defense officials as saying that some reservists had already been mobilized to help protect communities on the Gaza border from retaliatory Palestinian rocket salvos, adding that new reservists would help complete the IDF' preparations for a possible escalation of the fighting.

Meanwhile, hundreds of IDF infantry and armored corps troops headed for Gaza border early Sunday in preparation for a possible ground invasion, according to Israeli military officials.

Also on Sunday, local news service Ynet reported that IDF deployed an artillery battery opposite Gaza for the first time in a year.

The move indicated that Israeli military was continuing its preparations for a possible ground incursion into Gaza as part of its "Cast Lead" operation, said Ynet.

According to Israeli military sources, the artillery battery was deployed as backup for any future ground incursion into Gaza.

The artillery would be used according to the IDF's most rigorous protocol in order to avoid harming innocent civilians, added the sources.

Israeli defense establishment has been consulting with its legal experts on the legality of using artillery fire on Gaza, said Ynet.

It added that the discussions, prompted by past reports suggesting such fire resulted in severe civilian casualties, led to the defense establishment subjecting such fire to the strictest protocol possible.

The preparations for a possible Gaza ground incursion came hours after IDF said that it was too early to declare the victory of Israeli offensive in Gaza.

IDF sources said that so far, Hamas' response to Israel's aerial attack of strategic targets in Gaza was relatively restrained, despite the rocket fire of short-range and Grad rockets, adding that there was a possibility for a massive response from Hamas.

It was too early to assume Hamas has been subdued, said the IDF, noting that the militant group still has the capacity to shoot heavy barrages of rockets, as well as to attempt attacks along the fence between Gaza and Israel, and in Israel itself.

On Sunday morning, Hamas operatives launched three Grad rockets towards Israel, which landed near Ashdod and the hit marked the northernmost range of Gazan rockets seen to date - more than 40 km, according to Ynet.

On Saturday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Sky News that he would not rule out widening the offensive in Gaza to include a ground invasion.

"There is a time for calm and a time for fighting, and now the time has come to fight," said the defense minister.

Asked whether Israel would follow up Saturday's air strikes with a ground offensive, Barak said that "if boots on the ground will be needed, they will be there."

(Xinhua News Agency December 29, 2008)

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