Israel Solidifying Hold on Gaza, but Suffers First Soldier Death

Israeli ground forces solidified their hold on the Gaza Strip Sunday, claiming to strike Hamas bunkers and dozens of fighters, and establishing multiple security cordons in an attempt to cut off the movement of Hamas weapons and personnel.

But Israel also suffered its first combat death. ABC News learned the soldier was in the infantry engaged in a heavy firefight on the north end of Gaza. He was killed by mortar fire.

Under cover of artillery and aircraft, Israeli soldiers and tanks entered the narrow strip of land from several directions starting around 7 p.m. local time on Saturday. They entered from the north as well as the east, reaching the sea and cutting the Gaza Strip in two. Another column entered in the south near the Egyptian border.

There were reports of heavy fighting in some areas. Throughout the night, Israeli and Hamas television showed pictures of large explosions inside Gaza, artillery bursts and grainy nightscope video of long lines of Israeli troops moving into the area.

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Israeli shelling continued Sunday with artillery shells from the ground and missiles from above. A fuel depot near Gaza City burned all day.

Dozens of Palestinians in Gaza have been killed since the ground operation began Saturday evening, according to the Palestinians. Since the Israeli offensive began nine days ago, more than 500 Palestinians have been killed and more than 2,400 people injured.

Local television reported that five of the Palestinian dead in the ground fighting were civilians killed by an Israeli tank shell at a Gaza City market and another 11 civilians died when a tank shell hit a home north of Gaza City.

In addition to the Israeli fatality, at least 34 other soldiers have been injured since ground operations began.

It appeared this morning that Israeli soldiers had not moved into the most heavily populated areas of Gaza but rather were taking control of key routes and infrastructure.

'A Hard Blow Against Hamas'

Israeli military sources told ABC News the overarching goal of the campaign in the Gaza Strip is to strike "a hard blow against Hamas" and to force the organization into a more amenable negotiating position "to bring about a more stable security situation for its citizens in the south."

The Israeli offensive may already be paying dividends. At a Cabinet meeting today, Yuval Diskin, the head of Israel's security service, Shin Bet, told government officials that Hamas had eased its demands on a cease-fire, according to the newspaper Haaretz.

Even so, international pressure for a cease-fire persisted -- though on ABC News' "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" today, Israeli President Shimon Peres rejected the idea, perhaps a sign from Israel's leadership that the fighting is far from over.

"If there is somebody [who] can stop terror with a different strategy, we shall accept it," Peres said. "We shall not accept the idea that Hamas will continue to fire [rockets at Israel] and we shall declare a cease-fire. It does not make any sense."

Protests and Calls for a Cease-Fire

On Saturday, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon expressed strong reservations about the Israeli ground operation. After speaking to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Ban released a statement saying he "conveyed his extreme concern and disappointment."

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