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Israel stepped up its offensive in the Gaza Strip yesterday, killing at least nine people, including civilians, in a broad series of airstrikes and shelling attacks on Hamas and Islamic Jihad targets, after Palestinian militants fired a long-range GRAD Katyusha rocket at northern Ashkelon.

No one was hurt in the Katyusha attack, which was the farthest distance a rocket of this sort had reached.

The Palestinians responded to Israel's strikes with a barrage of Qassam rockets, one of which hit the yard of a house in Sderot.

In Nablus, Israel Defense Forces troops discovered two rockets-in-process, in an arms cache belonging to Hamas.

Despite the escalated Israeli response and use of fighter planes, defense sources told Haaretz yesterday that a large-scale ground offensive in Gaza is not in the works for now.

The sources said the IDF's activity in Gaza over the past two months had proved itself, killing nearly 100 Palestinian gunmen. Israel intends to continue this method of ground incursions up to 3 kilometers west of the perimeter fence, along with targeting senior militants in Islamic Jihad, Hamas and the Popular Resistance Committees from the air.

The GRAD Katyusha yesterday was launched from the al-Attara region, near the northern edge of the Gaza Strip. The IDF estimates it traveled 17 kilometers, well within the rocket's known range of 18-20 kilometers.

Ashkelon, which has a population of 120,000 and several facilities of national importance, is a preferred target for the militants. On several previous occasions when Katyushas of this type were launched from Gaza, they landed the south of Ashkelon, a range of 13-15 kilometers.

Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front-General Command claimed responsibility for the rocket, in a videotape distributed in Gaza. However, Jibril's group barely operates there, so Israeli officials believe this to be a diversion, and that it was really the work of a larger organization, Hamas or Islamic Jihad, which were responsible for previous GRAD launches.

The Palestinian casualties yesterday came in fighting mostly near Khan Yunis. In one clash, the IDF shelled a house in the city itself, killing a militant along with his mother, sister and brother. Israeli army spokeswoman Capt. Noa Meir said militants were intentionally using civilian areas to fire at troops and blamed them for the deaths.

After the shelling, the three-story house leaned to one side, barely standing, as an Israeli bulldozer leveled nearby land. In another incident, a 14-year-old boy was critically wounded. His limp body, a mangled foot dangling, was rushed into a hospital emergency room.