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Calm returned yesterday to the Gaza Strip and southern Israel a day after Palestinian militants fired a barrage of 17 Qassam and Grad rockets at Sderot, Ashkelon and their surroundings in response to the death of a Palestinian militant in Gaza. One woman was lightly hurt by shrapnel and 15 others were treated for shock at Ashkelon's Barzilai Medical Center.

Government sources said the next few days will be crucial in determining whether the ceasefire with Hamas may be salvaged.

At the same time, Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned against any rash action that may destabilize the situation.

"Blowing things out of proportion is not a state policy," Barak said. "This situation is intolerable. The defense establishment must act decisively against Hamas and other extremists in the Gaza Strip," Barak noted during a speech in Netanya.

Four of the 17 rockets fired at Israel over the weekend were Grads, which have a greater range and payload than Qassams.

Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack and said it was acting in response to attacks by Israel Defense Forces against Palestinian militants and following the death of a Popular Resistance Committee gunman in an explosion in northern Gaza early Friday.

A spokesman for the PRC said the Israel Air Force exchanged fire with a group of militants who approached the Israeli border near the city of Beit Hanoun, killing one of its members.

An Israel Defense Forces spokesman said the IAF was not involved in the Friday incident and that the blast was the result of a mishandling of explosives by the militant.

"The ceasefire agreement will not prevent Hamas from reacting to Israeli aggression," Fawzi Barhum, a spokesman for Hamas said. "The enemy is turning more corrupt and violent against our people and the holy sites. The military wing of Hamas will avenge every Israeli crime."

Sderot was hit by a barrage of ten Qassam rockets, one of which landed in the center of town lightly wounding a woman. Another landed between two houses in a nearby kibbutz, causing panic.

Residents of Ashkelon, whose city was hit by four rockets, protested against the government following the attack.

"We're either at war with Hamas or there's a calm," said Yossi, a youth from Ashkelon. "This is the government's cowardice. They aren't so interested in the security of Ashkelon's residents. The Israeli government cannot pursue its own agenda when rockets are fired at us. Now I understand what Sderot residents have felt for seven years...their fear and anxieties."

Barak yesterday defended the government's policy of restraint during a speech in Netanya and hinted that Israel's decision to retaliate immediately after Hezbollah's attack on its soldiers, leading to the Second Lebanon War, was rash.

"We saw two years ago what a rash decision may do to Israel's national security," Barak said. "In my estimation and according to my professional opinion we are not late in acting [in Gaza]. If and when, we shall carry out an operation and succeed. But such a large-scale action is not a picnic and it must be taken only when other options are exhausted, not the other way around."

The defense minister also rejected claims that the ceasefire with Hamas removed pressure from the Islamic group from reaching an agreement over the return of abducted IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. Barak said that a large-scale operation would not help talks over Shalit's release.