Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Wednesday that the Israel Defense Forces would continue to use "firm determination and assaults" against terrorist elements in the Gaza Strip, adding that Israel would not tolerate attacks on its citizens or communities.
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"The IDF is acting and will act against terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip," Netanyahu said, after a barrage of mortar shells and Grad rockets struck the western Negev within the early hours of the day, "No state would be prepared to tolerate continued rocket fire on its citizens or citizens."
Speaking after a day of heavy tension along the Gaza border, in which the Israel Air Force retaliated for mortar and rocket fire by attacking launching squads inside the coastal territory, Netanyahu said: "It could take the form of exchanges of fire, it could continue for a particular length of time, but we are very determined to reach every terror element and to prevent them from having the capability of harming our citizens."
Two Grad-type rockets struck residential areas in the city of Be'er Sheva on Wednesday morning, and another hit Ashdod just hours before that.
One person was lightly wounded, and a number of others were treated for shock. Militants in the Gaza Strip also fired at least seven mortar shells at the Eshkol region of the western Negev over the course of the morning, and another rocket at the Sha'ar Hanegev area.
The IDF responded by striking rocket-launching squads in the Gaza Strip. At least one Palestinian was killed in the retaliatory attacks. At least four Palestinian civilians and five militants were killed during a surge of shelling between Israel and Hamas on Tuesday.
Netanyahu has convened his top ministers for an emergency session to discuss the escalating tensions. Two senior ministers – Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon - will not attend the meeting, due to prior scheduled visits abroad. Barak is planning to return to Israel later Wednesday.
The prime minister himself is scheduled to leave for Moscow later Wednesday for previously scheduled trip.
Vice Premier Silvan Shalom warned earlier Wednesday, before any official meeting on the matter in Jerusalem, that Israel may have to consider launching a fresh military offensive against the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Shalom told Israel Radio that the situation recalled the run-up to Israel's 2008-2009 Gaza war, which killed around 1,400 Palestinians. Hamas had mostly held fire from the enclave since.
"We may have to consider a return to that operation," Shalom told Israel Radio. "I say this despite the fact that I know such a thing would, of course, bring the region to a far more combustible situation."
If the rocket fire continues, Israel would have to embark on a wide-scale operation to topple the Hamas regime, Shalom told Israeli Radio. The operation would have to target leaders and commanders of terrorist movements, said Shalom, rather than just tunnels and open areas.
Culture Minister Limor Livnat echoed Shalom's remarks, saying Israel may have no choice but to launch Operation Cast Lead 2 if the rocket fire continued.
With dissident movements rocking the Arab world, U.S.-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has broached reconciliation with Islamist Hamas, which bested his Fatah faction in a 2006 ballot and seized control of Gaza in a civil war a year later.
Shalom said Hamas might have opened a new front with Israel "to stop any possibility of dialogue among the Palestinians or to come to the intra-Palestinian negotiation in a far stronger position".
In a statement following the rocket attacks, Islamic Jihad said it sought to avenge "the Zionist massacres against our fighters and people" and would continue to fight "until the full liberation of our lands" - a reference to Israel, as well as the West Bank and Gaza.
Hamas has described its attacks, which included the firing of more than two dozen mortar shells and rockets at the weekend, as retaliation for Israeli strikes. Hamas has at times proposed a long-term truce with Israel.
After Tuesday's deaths in Gaza, Netanyahu voiced regret for the civilian casualties, which he said resulted from errant Israeli shelling. He said Israel sought no further flare-up but would continue to respond to Palestinian attacks.