Israel intensifies Gaza offensive after second rocket attack

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Israel stepped up its armoured advance into northern Gaza last night after defiant militants launched the second Qassam rocket within 24 hours at the coastal city of Ashkelon.

Two Palestinians ­ said by local medics to have been a Hamas militant and a Palestinian Coastal Policeman ­ were killed and at least six others wounded in at least one explosion in the beach area of northern Gaza. The Army said it had fired two missiles in separate attacks on militants in the al-Atatra coastal area north of Gaza City.

The Israeli cabinet had warned yesterday that it would intensify operations in Gaza including "institutions and infrastructure facilitating terrorism" less than 24 hours after Hamas's military wing claimed responsibility for the first of the Qassam rocket attacks on Ashkelon. A cabinet communiqué added that it would now "change the rules of the game" in its dealings with Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.

Saying that its goals remained the release of the abducted army corporal Gilad Shalit, 19 ­ without negotiations on an exchange of prisoners ­ and the halting of Qassams, the cabinet communiqué pledged "prolonged and graduated security activity" to achieve its aims.

Palestinian witnesses said that Israeli tanks and armoured personnel carriers had started moving to the abandoned settlement of Nissanit as part of the stepped-up offensive agreed by the Israeli cabinet yesterday in response to a Qassam attack.

Militants have vowed to try to resist a further advance by troops originally brought into the northern and southern extremities of the Gaza strip last week after the abduction of the corporal in a raid on an Israeli military post 11 days ago.

While the army denied that forces had yet moved into Nissanit, there were exchanges of fire between Palestinians and a group of around five tanks. These had apparently advanced from a recently established base in the neighbouring Erez industrial zone between the northern border crossing and the settlement.

A car carrying a crew from the Arabic satellite television channel al-Jazeera came under fire from Palestinians, wounding two people. Wael Dahdouh, a reporter travelling in the car said the gunmen thought the reporters were Israeli undercover agents.

The developments came after the most prominent cabinet members in the Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority virtually went underground after hints that they could be targets in the wake of Cpl Shalit's capture and the continued firing of Qassam rockets. The Army, which did not confirm the new moves last night, has already entered the northern edges of the strip at two places and taken over the disused Gaza airport near the southern border.

One minister prepared to be interviewed earlier yesterday, the Palestinian minister of information, Yusef Riska, said: "It is a dangerous and unforeseeable situation. We take the Israeli threats seriously."

Behind his desk in a booklined study, his only evident security a single Hamas bodyguard with an AK47, Mr Riska, formerly an academic in Arabic literature, said: "The success of any measures for security are limited because Israeli aeroplanes are equipped with such modern technology for killing. That is why we believe in Allah only."

Insisting "there is no complete control of the political leadership over the military wing of Hamas," and that the two were separate, Mr Riska said the Authority had been "surprised" at the firing of the rocket into Ashkelon.