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The Israel Defense Forces may carry out a major ground operation in the Gaza Strip before an Egyptian-mediated truce with Hamas is concluded, Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned yesterday.

Barak, who has repeatedly threatened an invasion, spoke while touring Kibbutz Nir Oz, where Amnon Rosenberg, 51, was killed earlier in the day by a mortar shell fired from the nearby Gaza Strip.

"A military operation is closer than ever, and it may even precede a cease-fire," Barak said, adding: "We are nearing the day of reckoning in the Gaza Strip, when we will decide whether to go in the direction of an agreement on a lull or a large-scale military operation."

The mortar attack occurred yesterday at approximately 11 A.M., when three 120mm shells landed in Kibbutz Nir Oz. One of the shells struck near the Nirlat paint factory, killing Rosenberg and wounding three others.

Two of the wounded suffered moderate injuries in the chest and the abdomen, while the third was lightly hurt.

Following the lethal salvo, the air force targeted a Palestinian gunman east of Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip. The IDF said that the man was seen near a mortar tube and that a hit was confirmed. But the Palestinians claimed that the air strike missed its target and killed a six-year-old girl.

According to eyewitnesses at the kibbutz, a few workers went out to see where the earlier mortars had fallen, and then the lethal shell landed.

"Some of the workers went out to see where the blasts had occurred, and we began running for cover, and then the shell landed at the entrance of the factory warehouse," said Sigal Eliezer, who works in customer service at Nirlat.

Because the attack involved mortars, which have a lower trajectory and a smaller radar signature than Qassam rockets, the Color Red early warning system did not sound.

"There have been a lot of shells and Qassams landing recently, and the workers have been talking about the situation, and there is fear. I have two children and I don't know what they would do if something happened to us," said Eliezer.

"The workers are concerned and anxious," agreed the factory manager, Yehuda Kaplan. "But we offer them psychological assistance, hold discussions. In the end, we all feel part of the enterprise, and maybe a few people will skip work for a couple of days, but we hope they will return to us."

He said that work at the plant would continue uninterrupted, and deliveries to clients, most of whom are overseas, will not be affected.