Israel firmly laid the blame on Hamas for a rocket attack on a western Negev army base at 2am yesterday which left at least 35 soldiers wounded in hospital – one critically and two severely.
The rocket landed on an empty tent at the Zikkim base but hurled shrapnel into neighbouring tents where troops had been sleeping, causing the biggest single injury toll of any Qassam rocket attack.
Tzipi Livni, Israel's Foreign Minister, hinted at possible retaliatory cut-offs of electricity and water to Gaza when she said, "we have means, means which are not only military" for responding to the attack.
While responsibility for the rocket strike was claimed by two other militant groups, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, Ms Livni said: "It doesn't really matter which organisation took responsibility. Gaza is entirely controlled by Hamas. Hamas has the ability to stop it and has decided not to do that."
Hamas made no effort to distance itself from the attack with a spokesman, Fawzi Barhoum, declaring: "We consider this a victory from God for the resistance. We consider the resistance as the legitimate right of the Palestinians to defend themselves and restore their rights."
Ms Livni used the attack – which prompted renewed calls from politicians for a full-scale military operation in Gaza – to underpin the government's strategy of seeking to boost the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, in the West Bank at the expense of Hamas.
Eli Yishai, a cabinet minister in the religious party Shas, said Israel would in the end "have no choice but to act" and called for cancellation of the international peace conference including Israel, Mr Abbas and his Ramallah-based emergency government, planned by the US for November.
But Ms Livni insisted in the wake of an attack, which the military said had injured 69 soldiers in all: "On the one hand we need to act against the terrorists in Gaza. On the other hand we need to reach an understanding with the moderates in the West Bank."
Several families of soldiers at the base complained about the lack of protection for troops sleeping under canvas only a kilometre inside the Israeli border with Gaza. An alert was sounded before the rocket landed but most of the sleeping soldiers were unable to reach shelter in time.
Shuki Wolfus, whose son had been due to join the Israel Defence Forces' (IDF) orchestra as a trumpeter next week but had a leg amputated , told the Ynet news service: "This could have been prevented. Why should soldiers be placed at a base without fortification?"
The health ministry in Gaza said two Palestinian girls aged seven and 17 were in hospital last night after being wounded in an Israeli missile strike that followed the attack. The IDF said it had fired a missile at the site where the rockets had been launched but had carried out no other operations in Gaza yesterday.
The signs were that the Israeli cabinet will continue authorising "pinpoint" air and ground strikes against the Qassam rockets.
The IDF also said it had closed the Kerem Shalom crossing in south-east Gaza after militants fired a series of mortars at it.
Bernard Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister, who met Ms Livni yesterday, said the groups behind the rocket attack were seeking to "undermine the process of negotiations between Israel and Abu Mazen [Mr Abbas]".Reuse content