Forces move close to Gaza border after wave of rocket attacks

The army stepped up its military response to a spate of Palestinian-launched Qassam rocket attacks with a missile strike on two cars in Gaza City. Palestinian medics said that at least two of the four men killed had been Hamas militants. An Israeli aircraft also attacked a school in a crowded Gaza City neighbourhood, wounding at least 15 people.

The blast early this morning struck the Arkam school, which was established by the late founder of the militant Hamas group, Sheik Ahmed Yassin. The army said the building was used by a Hamas-linked foundation to raise money for terrorist attacks

As Ariel Sharon summoned a meeting of his security cabinet for last night, the Israel Defence Forces said the Palestinian Authority had been " tasked" with curbing the attacks, but the army stood ready to take whatever steps were ordered to "protect Israeli citizens."

The air strikes on Hamas targets came as the Defence Minister, Shaul Mofaz, said there would be a "crushing and unequivocal" response to at least 26 rockets fired from Gaza, mainly in the area of the Israeli border town of Sderot, in the previous 24 hours.

The air strikes targeted what the IDF said were three Hamas weapons facilities, a weapons warehouse in the Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza and a weapons factory and another weapons warehouse in Gaza City. A fourth and later missile was launched at a field near the northern Gaza community of Beit Hanoun where rocket attacks had been launched, according to the IDF.

News agencies reported five artillery pieces being set up near Kibbutz Nahal Oz close to the Gaza border. Although the IDF has on occasions used naval cannon to fire on the Gaza shore during the past five years of conflict, the use of land-based artillery would be unusual, if not unprecedented.

The sharp increase in tension followed both the rocket attacks and an explosion at a military rally staged by Hamas which killed at least 15 people in the Jabalya camp on Friday evening. Both the Palestinian Authority and the Fatah Central committee have indicated they believe the explosion was caused by the detonation of weapons paraded by the faction.

Although the first dozen rockets were fired on Friday by Islamic Jihad in response to the shooting dead of three of its activists in the West Bank City of Tulkarum, Hamas said the further spate was retaliation for what it continued to insist was an Israeli missile attack on Jabalya. The claim was vigorously dismissed by the army yesterday as a mere pretext for Hamas to launch its own rocket attacks.

As Israel sealed off the Gaza Strip and the West Bank ­ halting the flow of a few thousand Gazans allowed to work in Israel ­ thousands of people chanting slogans of revenge marched in the Jabalya camp, at the funerals of those killed in the explosion on Friday night. At least four militant gunmen were thought to have been among the dead.

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