Israel warns of new Gaza assault after air strikes

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JERUSALEM: Israel on Friday threatened a wide scale military operation against the Gaza Strip after a string of air strikes which injured three Palestinian children following rocket attacks from the enclave.

Israel’s deputy prime minister, Silvan Shalom, warned that the military would soon launch a new offensive on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip unless the rocket fire was halted.

"If this rocket fire against Israel does not stop, it seems we will have to raise the level of our activity and step up our actions against Hamas," Shalom told public radio.

"We won’t allow frightened children to again be raised in bomb shelters and so, in the end, it will force us to launch another military operation," said the deputy premier.

"I hope we can avoid it, but it is one of the options we have, and if we don’t have a choice, we will use it in the near future," he said.

Three Palestinian children — aged two, four and 11 — were hit by flying glass in one of Israel’s six overnight raids, said Moawiya Hassanein, head of the Palestinian emergency services in Gaza.

There were no other reports of casualties.

The head of the Islamist Hamas movement’s government in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniya, reacted by blaming the Jewish state for the increase in tensions.

"We call on the international community to intervene to stop this escalation and Israeli aggression," Haniya said in a statement.

Britain on Friday expressed concern at the escalation in and around Gaza, calling for restraint and the launch of US-backed indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

"We are concerned by today’s strikes and the escalation of violence in Gaza and southern Israel over the past week. We call on all parties to show restraint," a Foreign Office spokeswoman said.

"We encourage Israelis and Palestinians to focus efforts on negotiation and to engage urgently in US-backed proximity talks."

The air strikes came after a rocket fired by Palestinian insurgents landed near the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon late on Thursday, causing damage but no casualties, the army said.

Underscoring the tensions, warning sirens wailed across Ashkelon again on Friday morning, sending residents scurrying for shelters, but the army said it was a false alarm.

Nearly 20 rockets have been fired into Israel in the past month, including one that killed a Thai farm worker, in the worst spate of violence since the end of Israel’s 22-day assault on the territory launched in December 2008.

Since the war, which killed some 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis, Israel has routinely responded to sporadic rocket fire with air raids against smuggling tunnels and workshops which it says are used to make rockets.

Three of the Israeli strikes overnight targeted an area near Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza. Two missiles hit a guard post of Hamas’s armed wing, the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades.

A fourth raid destroyed a workshop in the refugee camp of Nusseirat, in central Gaza, according to Hamas and witnesses. In the other air strikes, a small dairy factory was destroyed in western Gaza City.

The military said it hit "a weapons manufacturing site in the northern Gaza Strip, a weapons manufacturing site in the central Gaza Strip and two weapons storage facilities in the southern Gaza Strip."

"The (army) holds Hamas as solely responsible for maintaining peace and quiet in the Gaza Strip," it said.

The rise in rocket fire has came amid tensions over Israel’s settlement plans for annexed east Jerusalem that have stymied US efforts to launch peace talks and by fresh clashes along the Gaza-Israel border.

Two Israeli soldiers, including an officer, were killed along with two Palestinian gunmen during fierce clashes on March 26-27 when Israeli tanks made a brief incursion into Gaza.

And on Tuesday, a Palestinian teenager was killed as Israeli troops fired on protesters near the border of the blockaded coastal strip.

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