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The government will stick with the Egyptian-backed talks seeking a cease-fire with Hamas despite yesterday's heavy shelling from Gaza, but the Israel Defense Forces may step up operations in response to the attacks, defense sources say.

The IDF has contingency plans to occupy large areas of the Gaza Strip, but the chances it would do so seem remote for now. An Israeli woman was moderately injured yesterday in a barrage of some 50 Qassam rockets and mortar shells on communities in the northern and western Negev. Ten Palestinians were killed in the Gaza Strip during the worst day of fighting in the region in over a month.

The intense shelling was probably the result of an explosion in an apartment building in the town Beit Lahiya in the northern Strip yesterday afternoon, killing seven Palestinians and injuring dozens. Most of those killed were Hamas activists, and the two-story building and several other homes in the town were destroyed.

Hamas, which initially accused Israel of causing the explosion in the home of a Hamas man, later toned down its accusations after Israel firmly denied any involvement in the incident. Israeli sources said the incident was probably caused by Palestinians making a bomb.

Shortly after the explosion, dozens of mortar shells were fired toward Israel, especially at the Erez crossing area and Moshav Netiv Haasara. A woman, 59, of Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, was moderately injured.

Most of the rockets, however, fell in open fields near Kibbutz Nahal Oz, the greenhouses of Moshav Netiv Haasara and the Kibbutz Zikim area.

At the same time, Qassam rockets were fired toward Western Negev communities, and Grad rockets were fired at Ashkelon. One of the rockets landed near the city.

Despite the fire, the alarm siren in Ashkelon was not activated. Sources in the Home Front Command said there was no need to operate the alarm because the rockets were not likely to reach the city.

The IDF retaliated with air strikes targeting rocket- and mortar-operating units.

The IDF foiled a large-scale terror attack yesterday when Palestinian militants attempted to bring an apparently booby-trapped bulldozer close to the border fence. Israeli soldiers fired anti-tank missiles at the bulldozer and stopped it. The militants jumped off and fled back to the Strip.

The IDF said that Gaza militants had been planning to use the heavy barrage as a diversion while carrying out the attack with the bulldozer near the fence. The IDF added that the Israel Air Force bombed the Palestinian mortar squad that fired on Kibbutz Nir Oz minutes earlier; they reported a direct hit.

The Israeli envoy to the talks with Egypt, Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad, met the Egyptian intelligence chief yesterday to discuss the cease-fire initiative.

At the cabinet's request, Gilad asked the Egyptians for clarifications on the link between the cease-fire and the deal to release abducted soldier Gilad Shalit, and on the Egyptians' steps to stop the arms smuggling from Sinai into the Gaza Strip. The Egyptians said they must talk to Hamas leaders before giving their answer, probably in the middle of next week.

Gilad told the Egyptians that the situation along the Gazan border was volatile and that Israel needed a quick answer on the agreement.

"The last round of fire on the communities demonstrates the gravity of the situation," a defense source told Haaretz. "Next week we'll get answers from Cairo and see if we are indeed heading toward a cease-fire."

The source said that the IDF has been instructed to prepare for intense fighting. But other defense officials said Israel planned to make every effort to reach a cease-fire first, and is in no hurry to launch an offensive.