After one week of pounding Hamas targets from the air, the Israel Defense Force sent columns of tanks, armored personnel carriers and heavy artillery into the Gaza Strip under the cover of darkness Saturday night.

Reportedly backed up by helicopters, the onslaught of troops and machinery followed a steady bombardment of targets by Israeli mortar crews on the other side of the border. The operation is designed “to strike a direct and hard blow against Hamas, while increasing the deterrent strength of the IDF, in order to bring about an improved and more stable security situation,” said a statement from the military spokesperson’s office.

The ground incursion – which followed a steady buildup of forces – came after an onslaught of Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israeli communities throughout Shabbat.

Saturday morning, one woman suffered shrapnel wounds when a rocket destroyed her home in Netivot. In addition, two people were wounded when a long-range rocket inflicted a direct hit on an eight-story building in the coastal city of Ashdod. On Friday, Palestinians fired 36 rockets from the Gaza Strip, The Jerusalem Post reported.

Rabbi Schneur Goodman, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Ashdod, said that things had been relatively quiet since Thursday afternoon, up until an air raid siren interrupted morning services.

“Everything’s fine until you hear that siren, followed by a boom,” said the rabbi. “It was quiet at the end of the week, but we all knew it was just a matter of time.”

Despite the crisis, some 45 people attended Shabbat morning prayer services at the Chabad House, said Goodman. When the siren went off, they sought shelter in a hallway, and then returned to the synagogue.

An Israeli soldier dons tefillin during a visit by Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries to his base near the Gaza Strip. (Photo: Meir Alfasi)
An Israeli soldier dons tefillin during a visit by Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries to his base near the Gaza Strip. (Photo: Meir Alfasi)

Rabbi Menachem Kutner, director of Chabad’s Terror Victims Project, said that he will spend much of Sunday visiting those injured in the Saturday attacks. He characterized as miraculous the relatively low count of injuries in the eight-day crisis.

“Thank G‑d, there are a lot of miracles taking place,” he said. “The woman from Netivot suffered burns and some shrapnel struck her leg, but it’s a light injury.”

In the central village of Kfar Chabad, meanwhile, Rabbi Aharon Prus was spending Saturday night coordinating efforts on the part of the Chabad-Lubavitch Youth Organization to provide encouragement to soldiers now operating in Gaza.

“Our priority is to do what we can to give them spiritual strength,” said Prus, who oversaw a Friday distribution of challahs, wine and candles in advance of Shabbat. “We will continue to be there with them.”