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Eight Israel Defense Forces soldiers were wounded Friday evening, two seriously, after mortar shells fired by Gaza Strip militants hit a military base near Kibbutz Nahal Oz in the western Negev.

The soldiers were evacuated to the Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva and the Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon. Doctors had to amputate the leg of one of the soldiers, who was brought to the hospital in a serious condition.

"Unfortunately, we had no choice but to amputate his leg, in hopes that we managed to save the other leg," a doctor told Army Radio yesterday. "He is currently on a ventilator and unconscious."

The incident began when a cell of four Palestinian militants approached the strip's perimeter fence, apparently in order to plant explosive devices. An IDF force opened fire on the militants, wounding three of them. Palestinians retaliated by firing six mortar shells on Israeli towns and villages near the border. No injuries were reported.

Hamas militants launched three more shells at 9 P.M. that struck the Nahal Oz base and wounded the eight soldiers. "[Palestinian] provocations leave us no other option so we will have to take action soon," Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said yesterday. "We are nearing a wide-scale operation in Gaza. Something we have not seen in the past."

Despite Vilnai's warnings, the likelihood of Israel launching such an operation is slim as it is opposed by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Shin Bet security service head Yuval Diskin.

The violence has further marred the fragile five-month-old truce between Israel and Gaza militants that began breaking down in early November. Vilnai said yesterday that he believes Hamas values the truce because it serves their interests.

Security sources yesterday speculated that the Islamic group, which forcibly seized control of the Gaza Strip from the Fatah faction, is trying to reach a new balance with Israel that will allow it to launch occasional attacks on Israel without major repercussions.