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Palestinian militants yesterday fired over 64 rockets at Israel, killing one civilian and wounding six others, following Israel's launching a large-scale aerial offensive in the Gaza Strip earlier in the day.

Bebert Vaknin, 58, was killed and four others wounded - including two seriously - when two Grad missiles scored direct hits on houses in the town of Netivot.

In the Kiryat Gat area an 80-year-old man was lightly wounded on his way to synagogue when he was hit by shrapnel from a Grad missile landing nearby. Power outages in the area were reported after another missile hit the power grid.

Be'er Sheva braced for the possibility of being targeted for the first time by Palestinian militants armed with rockets with an improved range. Mayor Rubik Danilovitch oversaw the opening of an emergency operations room and the preparation of the city's bomb shelters.

The IDF's Home Front Command responded to the escalation by ordering civilians living near Gaza to stay within protected areas, banning public gatherings and cancelling school in the area within striking distance of the Strip.

Residents of Netivot, which until now been largely left outside the cycle of violence, were united in their support of Israel's offensive. "We have the faith that the IDF will carry out its job," a resident said.

"We have no problem being in bomb shelters for days. They won't scare us or make us tremble. Eventually we shall win."

In the coastal city of Ashkelon, Hannukah celebrations were cancelled.

Sapir College, which was struck by a Qassam rocket earlier this year, killing one of its students, cancelled lectures yesterday. Some of its students gathered at a hill overlooking Gaza to watch the smoke billowing from the territory in the wake of the offensive.

"It's about time we give a beating instead of taking one," one student said. "There's no way that for eight years we won't be able to sleep. It's about time that Palestinians feel what we feel."

At Kfar Aza, another settlement often targeted by Palestinian militants, local resident Nurit Hamides decided to take an early morning walk yesterday despite the tension. Because of fear that Palestinians might fire Qassams at Israel, her husband, Arieh, followed her in their car shortly behind. "I told her she had an escort like a prime minister," Arieh later joked.

During her walk, the Israel Air Force strike suddenly began and huge plumes of smoke rose from the distance in Gaza, sending Hamides running to her husband's car. "It's us, we're bombing Gaza," Arieh told his wife. "I don't care - drive us to a bomb shelter," she responded.