By Adel Zaanoun (AFP)
Gaza City, Palestinian Territories – Tensions were high around Gaza on Wednesday after Israeli raids killed four militants and two Thai workers were seriously wounded by rocket fire, with Israel’s defence minister vowing to punish Hamas.
“Hamas will receive its punishment for what has happened here,” said Defence Minister Ehud Barak, referring to the Islamist movement which rules Gaza, whose armed wing has been involved in firing more than 70 rockets at Israel since midnight.
“No terror element responsible for causing damage in Israel – or to Israelis – will be spared,” he said on a tour of the area around Gaza, hours after the two Thais were severely wounded and four others were lightly hurt by the rocket fire.
Referring to “the battle against Hamas and other terrorist organisations,” Barak said he hoped the military’s targeting of militant groups would “calm them down.”
“If they cannot be calmed, and the rockets continue, then the IDF (military) will act,” he said, noting that since the start of 2012, nearly 600 rockets and mortars had been fired at southern Israel.
But he warned it was likely to be a long campaign.
“The issue is far from over. The struggle has not come to an end and it will not come to an end here in the next week.”
The escalation began on Tuesday evening when militants fired six rockets at Israel shortly after a high-profile visit to Gaza by Qatari emir.
Several hours later, Israeli aircraft killed two militants from Hamas’s armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, in northern Gaza, sparking more rocket fire.
An early-morning raid near southern city of Rafah killed a third militant from the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), and later in the morning, a Hamas militant hurt in the evening strikes died of his injuries, medics said.
The Israeli military said armed groups had fired 72 rockets and mortar shells over the border since midnight (2200 GMT), injuring six, two of them seriously. Police said two Thai nationals were “seriously to critically wounded” while a third sustained light injuries.
Militants from Hamas and the PRC claimed responsibility for the rocket fire in a statement.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned any continuation of rocket fire would prompt a “much more extensive” Israeli response.
“We neither chose nor initiated this escalation but if it continues we are prepared for much more extensive and deeper action,” Netanyahu said on a tour of the Iron Dome anti-missile battery near Ashkelon, which brought down eight rockets during the day.
“In any case, we will continue with preventative operations. Whoever intends to attack Israeli citizens needs to know that he will bear the consequences.”
Netanyahu also said he had decided to increase protection for Israeli communities located 4.5-7 kilometres from the Gaza border, which were not covered by Iron Dome.
Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Benny Gantz also toured the south, an army statement said, indicating he “held an operational assessment looking at a continued military response in light of the escalation in the south.”
Speaking to public radio, deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said Israel “must strengthen its deterrence against Hamas by attacking the heads of this terrorist organisation or by destabilising its rule.”
But army spokesman Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai said overthrowing Hamas “would require a prolonged operation with multiple implications, mainly political.
“This option does exist but I don’t think that we have reached the stage where we are talking about this option,” he told the radio.
Tensions have been high around Gaza for the past few weeks, but peaked early on Tuesday when an Israeli soldier was severely injured by a roadside bomb in an attack claimed by the armed wing of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.