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Palestinians fired some 40 Qassam rockets and two mortar shells at the western Negev yesterday, lightly wounding two Israelis and causing several others to be treated for shock. Palestinians said they believe this escalation is part of a new Hamas policy aimed at forcing Israel into a cease-fire.

Also yesterday, Israeli strikes on the Gaza Strip killed at least five Palestinians, including a senior operative of the Popular Resistance Committees and his wife.

The current escalation began on Tuesday, when the Israel Defense Forces killed 19 Palestinians, mostly armed Hamas operatives. Since then, Palestinians have fired more than 130 rockets and dozens of mortar shells at Israel.

Hamas was responsible for most of yesterday's launches, and senior IDF officers believe that unless the situation calms down soon, Israel will have to further escalate its military operations.

But Palestinian sources predicted that Hamas would continue the rocket barrages, in an attempt to force Israel to agree to a cease-fire. Hamas, they said, believes that its previous, lower level of rocket and mortar fire allowed the IDF to operate freely in Gaza without Israel paying a serious price.

Moreover, Hamas believes that Israel wants to avoid a major ground operation in Gaza, and therefore, it will have no choice but to call a truce if heavy rocket fire on southern Israel continues. Hamas is currently refraining from firing rockets on Ashkelon lest that reverse Israel's opposition to a major incursion, the sources added.

However, Hamas officials declined to confirm that the recent escalation represents a new policy. Both organization spokesman Ismail Radwan and Ahmed Yusuf, who is Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's political advisor, insisted that the rockets were merely a response to the IDF operations and the resultant Palestinian casualties.

The IDF currently opposes a cease-fire, arguing that continued military pressure on Hamas will enable Israel to achieve a truce on better terms.

On orders from the government, the IDF is currently refraining from ground operations, focusing instead on aerial assaults. In one such strike yesterday, Raed Abu el-Foul, a senior PRC operative, and his wife were killed by a missile fired at their car. Two other Palestinians were wounded, Palestinian officials said.

Later, another air strike on a car in Gaza killed an Islamic Jihad operative along with a mother and child who were riding in a donkey cart nearby, Palestinian sources said. A second Islamic Jihad man was critically wounded. The IDF said it had targeted the militants shortly after they fired rockets at Israel.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the IDF yesterday to more forward with planning a large-scale ground operation in Gaza, but stressed that no such operation has yet been authorized. Barak's office noted that the army has been planning such an operation for the past several months, so as to be ready for any contingency.

Barak also decided to tighten economic sanctions on Gaza's Hamas government - inter alia, by reducing the amount of fuel allowed into the Strip. In addition, cargo trucks bringing humanitarian supplies into Gaza will undergo stricter inspections, due in part to the fact that two such trucks were recently found to be carrying material that could be used to make Qassam rockets.

In addition, Barak said that the IDF would "deepen" its military operations against the rocket-launching crews. "It won't be simple, it won't happen this weekend, but we will stop the rocket fire on Sderot," he said, speaking during a tour of the South.