IAF Strike Kills Three Gaza Militants Poised to Fire Rockets

Israel denies killing two at north Gaza border earlier Sunday; four mortar shells strike western Negev.

An Israel Air Force strike in the central Gaza Strip on Sunday killed three Palestinian militants, including a senior field commander, hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed a "powerful response" to any attacks from the coastal territory.

The Israel Defense Forces confirmed that its war planes attacked a launching ground where militants were preparing to fire rockets at Israel, not long after three mortar shells fired by Palestinian militants at the western Negev exploded near the Gaza border.

"The IDF will not allow any attempts to attack Israel and will continue to forcefully foil any such attacks," a military spokesman said following the strike.

The Hamas rulers of the territory said the men were members of the Islamic Jihad militant group and were killed in a field often used to launch rockets towards Israel.

Gaza emergency and ambulance services identified one of the dead as Awad Nuseir, 26, who the IDF said was one of the "terror organization's senior field commanders and is known to be behind dozens of IED and gunfire attacks."

The others confirmed dead by Gaza medics were Hassan al-Qatrawi, 29, and Huzaeifa el-Hams, 27. Islamic Jihad confirmed in a statement the death of the three militants and said they were members of the group's armed wing al-Quds Brigades.

Witnesses said Israeli warplanes fired one air-to-ground missile at the three militants near the border between Deir el-Balah and Israel. They added that the militants were about to fire rockets into Israel.

Earlier Sunday, medics reported that two Palestinians were killed in cross-border fire on Sunday, but rescue workers found no remains at the site where explosions were heard in northern Gaza.

An Israeli military spokesman denied any troops had operated there.

Netanyahu vowed on Sunday to launch an "immediate and powerful response" to any rocket fire at Israel after days of increased tension along the border with Hamas-ruled Gaza.

Netanyahu told a weekly cabinet session 20 mortar bombs and rockets had been fired at Israel from the Hamas-ruled territory last week, adding: "I view this very seriously. The government's policy is clear, any shooting at our territory will receive an immediate and powerful response."

Violence has risen along the Israeli-Gaza frontier in the past month, which could further complicate U.S.-backed diplomacy in the region, after a respite since a three-week Gaza war a year ago in which 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis died.

Three Palestinians were killed in a series of Israeli air strikes in Gaza on Thursday, including the first air raid in months to target a site inside Gaza City.

Palestinians said the targets were sites belonging to other militant groups, not Hamas Islamists who seized the territory in 2002 and are seen as having reined in violence since the Israeli offensive last January.

Israel also dropped leaflets warning Gaza's 1.5 million residents to avoid coming within 300 meters (yards) of the border fence with Israel citing security reasons.

Netanyahu told his cabinet Israel had targeted factories where rockets were manufactured and tunnels along Gaza's border with Egypt, where he charged "Iran smuggles in missiles and rockets" into Gaza, naming an arch-foe Israel accuses of arming militants.

Turning his attention to the West Bank, where Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement holds sway, Netanyahu demanded leaders there "stop incitement" that violated a U.S.-backed peace road map.

He charged a public square had been named in the West Bank for a militant involved in a lethal 1978 bus attack in Israel, and that three other militants Israel killed after they gunned down a settler have been hailed as martyrs.

"This is not the way to make peace," Netanyahu said.

Abbas has refused to resume negotiations with Israel, stalled for a year, before a halt to Jewish settlement building in the West Bank which Palestinians see as an obstacle to achieving a two-state solution of their conflict with Israel.

Abbas has rejected a limited, 10-month halt to settlement building announced by Israel in November as insufficient.