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Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired approximately 20 Qassam rockets and a mortar shell on southern Israel yesterday as the Friday expiration date for the shaky cease-fire loomed closer. The Israel Air Force hit a mobile rocket launcher near the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanun after three Sderot residents were lightly wounded by the rocket fire and nine were treated for shock.

No injuries were reported in the air strike.

Only one rocket hit Sderot, landing in the parking lot of a shopping center and causing some damage. Another rocket landed south of Ashkelon, while the remainder hit open areas in the western Negev. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for most of the rockets fired yesterday.

"If the Qassam had landed a few meters over, it would have hit the crowded shopping center," said Sderot Mayor David Buskila. "I won't imagine what would have happened. What is the government waiting for?"

The Israel Defense Forces had raised its alert level along the Gaza border in the wake of Hamas statements that the six-month lull was expiring tomorrow, but no orders have been given for an IDF attack in Gaza, senior military officials told Haaretz. They said Israel plans to continue its policy of restraint for now and is not preparing to attack Hamas.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi agree that Israel has no reason to launch a major operation in Gaza. The IDF says even a limited incursion would spark a major rocket-firing offensive from Hamas, causing the situation to deteriorate so drastically that Israel would need to recapture the Strip, which it wants to avoid doing.

Rocket fire is a "situation that is difficult to accept," Barak said last night at a conference run by Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies. He said Israel wasn't recoiling from an extensive military operation in Gaza, but wasn't running toward one either.

"When the situation requires us to act, we will act," Barak said.

The defense minister suggested letting defense experts decide what kind of Israeli reaction was best. "We hear comments from people who saw combat but no longer shoulder responsibility," he said. "They would speak differently if they did have [the responsibility]. We also hear populist declamations from people who never saw combat and the results of whose actions we are trying to fix to this day."

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stopped short of pledging retaliation for the rocket attacks, saying "there can't be a situation where there is a truce, but the situation on the ground is very different."