IDF Gaza strike - AFP
IDF strike on Gaza Strip. Photo by AFP
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Sunday to respond "most harshly" if Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip continued to fire rockets and mortar shells at Israel.

"The Israel Defense Forces hit Hamas and the terrorist organization hard over the weekend," Netanyahu told ministers at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. "If attacks against Israeli civilians and the IDF continue, the response will be most harsh."

Interior Minister Eli Yishai called on the cabinet to agree to taking "less routine and stronger" action against the Gaza Strip, to curb the onslaught of rockets.

Yishai said he was not envisioning "another Cast Lead" operation, referring to the war launched two years ago, but rather "an expanded air operation."

"A ground operation is completely useless," Yishai said. "We need to do something stronger and not stay apathetic as we have been, in order to bring calm to the area."

Prior to the cabinet meeting, both Hamas and Israel on Sunday signaled willingness to agree to a mutual cease-fire to end days of cross-border violence that saw at least 19 Palestinians killed and more than 100 rockets fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Israel Radio that the army would be willing to accept a mutual cease-fire with Hamas if the movement stopped firing from Gaza. "If they stop firing on our communities, we will stop firing. If they stop firing in general, it will be quiet, it will be good," Barak told Israel Radio.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters that "The Palestinian factions are not interested in escalation," adding: "If the Israeli aggression stopped, it would be natural for calm to be restored."

Palestinian militants fired approximately 120 rockets and mortars at Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip over the weekend, with tens of thousands of people spending the past few nights in reinforced rooms.

Another three mortar rounds hit the Negev early Sunday, and a rocket exploded south of Ashkelon later in the morning. Another rocket targeting Ashkelon was intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system. No casualties were reported in any of those incidents, but electricity was temporarily cut in parts of the region.

A total of 38 rockets were fired at Israel on Saturday, 23 of which were aimed at Negev communities and 15 at communities in the Lachish region. There were no injuries in the Palestinian rocket barrage, but damage to homes and poultry runs in the Eshkol region was extensive. Most fell in open areas.

In Gaza, the death toll among Palestinian militants and civilians climbed to 19 since Israel launched its retaliation for a rocket attack on a school bus that critically wounded a teenager on Thursday.
Asked if Israel was considering a ground offensive into the Gaza Strip to end Hamas's rule there, Barak said all options were on the table, but that it may not be necessary.

"If it will be necessary, we will act, but when it's not necessary, we don't need to," he said. "Restraint is also a form of strength."

Security sources said Saturday that as long as rocket fire continued from the Gaza Strip, Israel would continue extensive air attacks there.

Security sources also said that while the Hamas government in the Strip wants to calm the situation, the military wing continues to allow rocket fire from its own people and other factions.