Beit Lahiya, Gaza Strip Israel stepped up pressure Wednesday on Hamas militants who launched improved, longer range rockets into the heart of a major Israeli city, authorizing the army to enter populated areas in northern Gaza.
Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers entered one of Israel's former settlements in northern Gaza Wednesday night and opened fire on a nearby Palestinian town, Palestinian officials and witnesses said.
The Israeli military did not immediately confirm the movement into northern Gaza.
Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert convened his Security Cabinet and met with top military officials after militants fired rockets on Tuesday into Ashkelon, a southern Israeli city of 110,000 people.
Militants fired more rockets into southern Israel Wednesday, hitting an orchard in Ashkelon and the town of Zikim near the Gaza border. No one was hurt in any of the attacks, but it was the first time rockets have penetrated so far into Israel, showing militants have improved the range of the primitive weapons.
The planned invasion threatened to be far bloodier than Israel's week-old offensive in the Gaza Strip aimed at freeing an abducted soldier held by Hamas-linked militants.
The movement by Israeli forces on Wednesday night into the abandoned settlement of Nissanit appeared to be part of that new offensive.
Israeli forces and settlers withdrew from Gaza nearly a year ago, destroying all 21 Jewish settlements.
Israel shelled a northern Gaza beach early today, Palestinian witnesses said, killing a Hamas militant and wounding seven officers from the Palestinian coastal police, four of them seriously. Palestinian security officials said the target was apparently a coastal police station.
Earlier in the day, Olmert met ministers in his Security Cabinet and top military officials to decide which parts of a broad invasion should be immediately implemented.
Participants in the meeting said the Security Cabinet agreed a standing plan by the army to create a buffer zone in northern Gaza could be an effective way of preventing rocket fire. Olmert's office denied the Cabinet had approved the formation of such a zone.
To carve out a sufficiently wide buffer zone to protect Israeli towns from rocket attacks, the army might have to go into densely populated areas where it can expect fierce resistance from Palestinian militants.
Israel has massed soldiers on its border with northern Gaza since June 29, but officials postponed a planned invasion as international mediators sought a way out of the standoff over Cpl. Gilad Shalit. The 19-year-old soldier was captured by Palestinian militants on June 25.