A Palestinian rocket exploded in an Israeli army base early Tuesday, wounding dozens of soldiers as they slept in their tents and drawing Israeli calls for a major military operation in the Gaza Strip.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was scheduled to meet later today with top military and security officials, where they were expected to discuss a response to the attack, Israeli officials said.
The wounded soldiers were all recent recruits undergoing basic training at the army's Zikim base, just north of the Gaza-Israel border, and were asleep when the rocket hit an empty tent, the army said. More than 40 soldiers in nearby tents were wounded, including 12 who remained in serious condition, the army said.
Ambulances roared up to the base's gate after the rocket hit before 2 a.m., and army helicopters evacuated the seriously wounded. The emergency room at Barzilai Hospital in the nearby city of Ashkelon was swamped with incoming casualties, and medics emerged from the hospital carrying empty stretchers covered in blood.
The injury toll was the highest ever sustained in a single Palestinian rocket attack, and the strike came at a time when Israeli politicians and defense officials have been calling for a more aggressive Israeli response to the near-daily rocket barrages out of Gaza.
"Long ago, several years ago, we should have responded strongly ... In the end we will have no choice but to act," Cabinet minister Eli Yishai told Army Radio.
In an initial response, the army said ground forces attacked the area used by the militants to attack the army base.
Four Palestinian civilians between ages 5 and 21, members of the same family, were wounded, according to Dr. Muawiya Hassanin of Gaza's Health Ministry. Two were treated briefly and released, and two girls — ages 7 and 17 — remained hospitalized, Hassanin said.
Two small extremist groups, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, claimed responsibility for the attack in a joint statement faxed to reporters. Fearing retaliation, Islamic Jihad ordered its militants to avoid using cell phones and public transportation so they could not be tracked and targeted by Israeli forces.
Islamic Jihad has been responsible for nearly all rocket fire out of Gaza in recent weeks. But Israel has said it holds Hamas responsible for the violence, since it controls Gaza and has done nothing to halt the attacks.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum praised Tuesday's attack as a "victory from God." And in downtown Gaza City, a boy dressed in an Islamic Jihad scarf handed out sweets to motorists.
Another rocket hit an Israeli kibbutz near Gaza later Tuesday morning, causing no casualties. Hamas militants announced they had launched a mortar barrage at Kerem Shalom, a border crossing where humanitarian aid crosses from Israel into Gaza.
Crude homemade rockets land in southern Israel nearly every day. Although the rockets are inaccurate, they have killed 12 people in the past seven years, injured dozens and disrupted daily life in the area.
Attacks last week on the frequently targeted town of Sderot, including one that landed near a crowded nursery school, led parents to pull their children out of school and brought demands for harsh retaliation.
Israel routinely carries out air attacks and brief ground incursions meant to halt rocket-launching squads. But so far, the army has not found a way to halt the rockets.
Israel's Security Cabinet last week rejected calls for a large-scale Gaza invasion but threatened to cut water, electricity and fuel supplies to Gaza. Tuesday's attack could increase pressure on Olmert to order a major ground offensive in Gaza.
Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, ending 38 years of military rule, but militants continued launching rockets at Israeli towns. The Israeli army has mounted several large-scale military operations in Gaza over the past two years, with heavy casualties on both sides, but those moves had no long-term effect on the number of rockets hitting Israel.
The pre-dawn attack comes a day after Israeli and Palestinian leaders met in Jerusalem in advance of a November conference called by U.S. President George Bush.
At their three-hour summit conference Monday, Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas discussed "ways of advancing the peace process and of reaching a two-state solution," said Olmert spokesman David Baker.
Abbas called the talks "successful" and said two working groups would be set up to draft outlines of a peace accord in advance of the November conference.
In gestures toward Abbas, Israel also pledged to release some Palestinian prisoners during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins this week, and work on easing travel restrictions in the West Bank.
Olmert hopes to bolster Abbas and his Western-backed government in the West Bank after Hamas seized power in the Gaza Strip in June. Abbas' subsequent ouster of Hamas from the Palestinian government has freed the moderate leader to pursue peace efforts with Israel.
Abbas has condemned the recent wave of Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel, saying the barrages are threatening the peace process. While Abbas claims to have authority over Gaza, he has little influence there following the Hamas takeover.