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Fifty thousand Palestinian gunmen and hundreds of suicide bombers are ready to repel or at least impede any large-scale Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip, an official from the ruling Hamas faction said on Friday.

The statement came one day after 12 Palestinians were killed in separate Israel Defense Forces and Israel Air Force strikes within the coastal territory.

Nizar Rayyan, a senior Hamas leader, promised Israel "a painful response" should it send troops and tanks en masse into the Gaza Strip.

A Hamas-affiliated Web site quoted Rayyan as saying that "50,000 fighters, armed and brave in the battlefield" await an invasion, and that 400 would-be suicide bombers wear their explosives belts around the clock, ready to attack tank columns.

Israel has threatened to mount a massive ground sweep of Gaza as a last resort against cross-border rocket fire by Palestinian militants, which has not been significantly reduced by more limited air strikes and commando incursions.

But Israeli officials say such a mission in the congested territory would mean major casualties on both sides, a price Israel may not be willing to pay given the relatively low death toll exacted by the crude short-range Palestinian Qassam rockets.

"Hamas leaders were surprised when 200 women volunteered to carry explosives to confront Israeli tanks too," Rayyan said.

Israeli intelligence assessments are that Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in violent clashes with the rival secular Fatah in June, has marshaled at least 20,000 fighters proficient with a variety of small arms.

The operations by the IDF in the Gaza Strip began on Wednesday following several hours in which a hail of mortars and Qassam rockets slammed into the fence area separating Gaza from Israel. They also hit communities in the western Negev.

The attacks were carried out by Hamas and other groups, including Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees. Hamas claimed responsibility for firing 54 mortars against Israeli targets - primarily the crossings into the Gaza Strip.

At least 10 Qassam rockets were fired into towns in Israel.

In response, dozens of tanks and armored carriers moved into an area near the town of Beit Hanun in the northern Gaza Strip.

The first incident in which Palestinians were killed occurred south of Beit Hanun, in the neighborhood of Zeitun, after an IDF aircraft fired a number of rockets at a vehicle carrying five militants. The militants, all armed, belonged to the Army of Islam, an organization headed by Mumtaz Durmush, and which was responsible for the kidnapping of BBC correspondent Alan Johnston. It was also involved in the abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

The five killed are Fawzi al-Ashram, Hussein Ahl, Ayman Dalul, Osama al-Sifi and Samer al-Zaim.

In another incident, an IDF tank fired at a group of Palestinians trying to fire a missile against other tanks near Beit Hanun. Four militants were killed in that incident.

Two of those were identified as Hayri Hamdan, a member of the PRC, and Tair al-Basiuni, of Islamic Jihad.

The other two were Muhamad Adwan, 20, and Muhamad al-Basiuni, 24, neither being a known member of any organization in the Strip.

Early Thursday morning, an IDF helicopter fired and killed two Hamas militants: Raji Hamdan and Mohammed Abu Rakba.

Wednesday night, an IDF force fired a rocket at Palestinians trying to launch a Qassam rocket. An Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades militant, affiliated with Fatah, Hussam al-Hawihi, 21, died after suffering serious injuries in the attack.

Responding to the heavy loss of life, Hamas charged the Palestinian Authority government in Ramallah of remaining silent while Palestinians are being targeted.

"The Zionist enemy is trying to bend us to accept positions that suit it at the fall conference. That conference is doomed to fail," Ismail Radwan, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, told Haaretz. He was referring to the international conference sponsored by Washington and scheduled to take place in November to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who is currently in New York attending the United Nations General Assembly, condemned Israel's attacks in Gaza and called for "an end to the massacre being carried out by the army of occupation against Palestinians in the Strip."

For its part, the IDF does not consider the events in Gaza as constituting a significant change in the way it defends against indirect weapons fire, according to a source in the Southern Command.

Nonetheless, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Wednesday that "we are moving closer to a major operation in Gaza," noting that at this stage all efforts are being directed at weakening Hamas' hold on Gaza.

Barak warned that such an operation is not a simple matter, "neither from the point of view of forces involved or its breadth and length of time the IDF may have to stay there."

According to a source close to Barak, the IDF is operating in the Gaza Strip to foil rocket attacks, and it has been granted freedom of movement. The same source said that the type of operations that have been witnessed in the past 48 hours will continue.

But the idea of a broad ground operation in the Gaza Strip is not unanimously viewed as a solution in the defense establishment.

For many, tensions with Syria take precedent, and Thursday at noon, Israeli jet fighters were alerted to prepare to intercept Syrian helicopters seen on radar approaching the border area.

The aircraft were recalled once the helicopters were seen landing inside Syria. This is not the first time in recent days that that the air force has scrambled jets in response to air movements inside Syria, an event which also took place on Yom Kippur last week. Later it was learned that the aircraft seen on radar had crashed in Syrian territory.

In another development, rockets found by security forces in a home in Beit Jala near Jerusalem were discovered to have neither explosive warheads nor were capable of flight.

On Wednesday, Palestinian sources reported that two such rockets were found, aimed at Jerusalem.

Experts examining the two rockets said that they only comprised tubes with attached fins, and were unable to pose a threat to Jerusalem.

"They were only two simple tubes that could be made at any good workshop, painted to create the shape of a missile. They were no real threat," a security source said.

In addition, a number of devices believed to contain explosives were only butane gas tanks.

"The Palestinians are eager to show us that they are doing good security work in the area of Bethlehem, and this may be related to the benefits they are expecting to receive as a gesture for the Christmas holiday," the same security source said.