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GAZA - The escalation in violence between Israel and the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip over the last week is an Israeli provocation aimed at increasing Defense Minister Ehud Barak's standings in the polls, Hamas spokesman Taher a-Nunu said yesterday.

The Islamic group said the killing of several Palestinian gunmen in two separate incursions by the Israel Defense Forces into the Gaza Strip was intended to increase Barak's poor numbers in the polls ahead of the February general elections. He added it was also meant to force Hamas into reaching an agreement with the more moderate Fatah.

"They want Hamas to disband itself and for a [Palestinian] national unity government to be formed without Hamas or other organizations," a-Nunu said. "The weak Mahmoud Abbas will be able to make political concessions Israel is interested in with such a weak government."

Palestinian militants responded to the IDF's raids by launching dozens of Qassam rockets at Israeli towns and villages surrounding the Gaza Strip. Despite the rocket barrages, a-Nunu said it was in the Palestinian's best interests to renew the six-month long cease-fire with Israel that ends in December. The IDF says the gunmen killed in the Gaza operations were planning attacks against IDF soldiers, including a kidnapping attempt similar to that of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held captive for over two years.