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The Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet internal security service are preparing to step up assassinations against key Hamas figures in the Gaza Strip in response to the continued Qassam rocket attacks against Sderot. The renewed campaign of targeted killings is not likely, at this stage, to include members of the Hamas political leadership.

During a meeting on security developments yesterday, and at the weekly cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that Israel needs to continue its preparations for a large-scale military operation in the Gaza Strip, but there is no point in rushing into one.

Olmert was steadfast against pressure from cabinet ministers to change Israel's response to the Qassam attacks from the Gaza Strip.

"There are many operations against the Qassam attacks, but there is no way to put an absolute end to the terrorism in a single blow or a single air attack," Olmert later told reporters on his plane, on his way to a visit to Germany.

"Even after Defensive Shield [the operation against militants in the West Bank in 2002] terrorism continued and it took a long time to curtail it," Olmert added.

During the cabinet meeting, Olmert answered calls for retaliation for the injury of two brothers in Sderot by saying that "rage is not a plan."

Many ministers were critical of the situation in Sderot and the other communities bordering the Gaza Strip.

Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit was vociferous in his demands for action. "We are trying to talk in English to a population that only understands Arabic," he said, suggesting that the gloves need to come off.

"We need to target all those responsible for terrorism without asking who they are. It is not acceptable that we do not respond when we are being attacked. The IDF needs to wipe out a neighborhood in Gaza - warn the residents and then go into the neighborhood."

But on the plane, Olmert was almost nonchalant about cabinet criticism concerning the Gaza operations. "There has been fighting in the Gaza Strip for many months. We are holding regular talks on the Gaza Strip and we will have more talks. In 2007 we killed 500 militants in Gaza, so saying that we are doing nothing ignores reality."

For its part, the IDF is stepping up its preparations for the possibility of a large-scale ground operation in the Strip.

Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi recently gave orders for such preparations, but army sources insist that they have not received any order to initiate an operation. Military sources said that such operation is not likely to begin for several more weeks.

Barak has reiterated that Israel will not embark on a military operation unless Israel defines its goals, "has a [political] exit plan" and prepares the ground for broad international support for its action.

For now, the IDF has been ordered to continue its current operations, but step up the intensity of activity. This will include more intensive air strikes against Hamas targets, assassinations, and limited ground operations with forces not penetrating beyond the three-kilometer mark from the border fence into the Gaza Strip.

Security sources also said that there is solid information that the terrorist organizations in the West Bank are readying to dispatch suicide bombers inside Israel.

Meanwhile, Hamas and other Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip did not carry out any Qassam rocket attacks against Israel yesterday.

Nonetheless, yesterday afternoon a member of the Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine was killed in a firefight between a group of Palestinian gunmen and an IDF patrol, near the border fence in the northern Strip.

Also yesterday, a leading Hamas militant, Mohammed Matir,23, was killed in an air strike on Rafah.

In another air strike on an installation of Hamas' military wing of Hamas

near Khan Yunis, 10 Palestinians were injured.