By Athena Papakosta

Israeli forces entered a new phase in the ongoing war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip by launching a significant but limited land raid describing their move as exploratory action in preparation for the long-term ground operation.

Israeli infantry backed by tanks and armored bulldozers overnight and with surgical precision bring down part of the border fence and begin an hours-long raid into the northern Gaza Strip.

As reported by the correspondent of SKAI in Israel, Stavros Ioannidis, “tanks accompanied by armored personnel carriers entered the Gaza Strip destroying embankments, creating corridors which will then be used by infantry and armored personnel carriers during the broad operation to attack targets that are inside the Gaza Strip.”

Meanwhile, Israeli military officials raised the number of hostages being held by Hamas to 224 as European leaders prepared to demand Thursday’s summit in Brussels humanitarian corridors and ceasefires for the immediate delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza.

Israel’s armed forces stressed yesterday that the operation was carried out as heavy aerial bombardment continued on 250 targets with its forces entering up to one kilometer inside the Gaza Strip. The aim of this operation was to search the labyrinthine tunnel systems of Hamas but also to test the response mainly of those groups of the Palestinian organization which may even be equipped with Kornet anti-tank missiles – a fact which causes great concern to the Israeli army.

According to a spokesman for the Israeli armed forces, during this operation at least one Israeli tank came under fire, but the Israeli forces subsequently withdrew without casualties.

Analysts say the operation is a rehearsal of Israel’s planned broad ground operation to prepare the ground, gather intelligence, remove anti-tank obstacles and ensure there are no mines.

Before its start, the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, emphasized “This is only the beginning. We are preparing for the ground operation. I will not specify when, how and when” whereas, the country’s defense minister underlined last night that “we are laying the groundwork for the continuation of the campaign and more stages will follow” adding that “the ground operation will take place”. For his part, a spokesman for the Israeli army said that “we are currently preparing for the next phase of the operation. On both sides of the border fence there are targeted operations inside and outside. With very specific missions to be sure that we are ready for the next stage”.

For now, Israeli aggression persists from the air with Israeli media reporting that talks to release hostages within the next few days remain ongoing and the United States Department of Defense announcing the reinforcement of American forces in the Middle East with approximately 900 troops, in through the escalating attacks launched by pro-Iranian organizations in the region.