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The air force carried out an attack against Palestinian militants launching Qassam rockets from the Gaza Strip yesterday, the first such offensive mission for a number of months.

Military sources said IDF forces identified three Palestinians readying to launch Qassam rockets against Israel, near the northern coast of the Gaza Strip, in the ruins of the evacuated settlement of Dugit.

Palestinian sources said there were four people in the area and that two suffered serious injuries, while the others were lightly injured.

In the morning hours a group of Islamic Jihad militants fired a rocket from the same site.

At least seven rockets were launched against targets in Israel, four striking agricultural areas. The landing sites of the other three rockets have not been determined.

As part of the cease-fire with Hamas, Israel announce last November that it would avoid carrying out offensive operations in the Gaza Strip.

Since, Hamas has avoiding launching rocket attacks, but other militant organizations, mainly Islamic Jihad and Fatah crews, continued the shooting.

Several weeks after the cease-fire, the rules of engagement of the IDF were changed following the failure of Palestinian militants to end the rocket attacks. Troops were ordered to fire against rocket crews if they were identified clearly prior to launch. Nonetheless, for a number of months the IDF has avoided attacking the militants.

The change comes as Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi warned yesterday that the IDF may be required to provide an answer to the growing strength of Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the accumulation of large quantities of arms and ammunition.

Speaking before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee for the first time since he assumed command of the IDF, Ashkenazi said that "the process of Hamas growing stronger demands some sort of solution on our part. It involves large quantities of arms and an increase in the level of their operational planning. To counter this, the Southern Command is planning and training in case they will need to be activated."

Ashkenazi also declared that his "aim is to ensure that the operational readiness of the IDF is such to ensure that in every war it will be clear who won and who lost. We will not allow a recurrence of what happened in the Second Lebanon War," he told the committee.

The chief of staff, who laid before the committee his "manifesto," said that "the purpose of the army is to ensure the superiority of the state and to be victorious against any challenge."

To this end, the chief of staff said the IDF will focus mainly on preparations for war.

"The test of the army will always be in the results [it has]," he added.

On the situation in the region, Ashkenazi spoke of a trend toward instability that stems from the expanding capabilities of the enemy.

"The threat on the home front has increased on all levels, from the level of an individual suicide bomber to surface-to-surface missiles. Also , there is an attempt to check the air superiority of the IDF," Ashkenazi noted.

As for the territories, Ashkenazi said it is necessary to enable the population to live in a reasonable manner and the IDF must operate within the parameters of the law and not burden the lives of civilians when it is not necessary.

However, he added, it is necessary to make efforts to prevent the transfer of arms and the movement of terrorists from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank.

Meanwhile, an IDF force shot and killed a Palestinian in Jenin early yesterday morning.

Palestinian sources said the dead man is 21-year-old Iyad Hatoub, a member of the Al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigades, the military wing of the Fatah.

Last night the security forces also arrested 37 Palestinian fugitives in a sweep of the West Bank. Twenty of those arrested are members of Hamas, and were arrested in Qalqiliyah.

North of Jenin yesterday police arrested a Palestinian who threw a pipe bomb at them. There were no injuries. Following questioning he led them to a site where he had hidden two more devices.