More than 40 Qassam rockets landed in and around the town of Sderot and its neighboring communities in the western Negev on Tuesday, wounding three people.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak toured the region accompanied by regional army commanders and vowed Israel would put an end to the Palestinian rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.
The defense minister could not give a timetable for his pledge but said he had ordered the IDF to intensify and deepen its ongoing pinpointed operations against terror cells in the Hamas-controlled coastal territory. The army was also instructed by Barak to continue preparing for a possible wide-scale operation in the Strip while simultaneously tightening the closure imposed on its border crossings.
Qassams land near Sderot (Photo: Amir Cohen)
"The IDF will continue its ongoing operations and expand them in order to target Qassam launchers, until the rocket fire stops. This will not be simple and will not happen over the weekend, but we will see to it that the attacks on Sderot stop," Barak said.
At present time only authorized personnel and goods are allowed through the crossings, but Barak's instructions call for all movement in or out of Gaza to be halted. Only humanitarian cases will be allowed special consideration. Israel's supply of fuel and electricity to Gaza will also be cut back under the defense minister's orders. The measures approved by Barak will, for now, only be in effect for several days and are intended to increase pressure on terror groups and sever connections between Israel and Gaza as much as possible.
South's residents tell Olmert: Army has failed us
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited with the haggard residents of the Gaza vicinity and said he would not lie to them about the fortification of their towns from rocket attacks. "Ultimately I do not want to and cannot argue with the difficulties you face, when you hear the rocket sirens. I know how terrible it must be to live this way, and there are things that still will not be as you wish they were – but we are counting on your fortitude, on your determination, on your resilience," he said.
But as he spoke rockets continued to fall outside and the residents minced no words in expressing their frustration with the situation: "The Palestinians have got us in their crosshairs, they can see the whites of our eyes. The army has failed in protecting us. The government needs to decide whether we have security or not," said a member of Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, where an Ecuadorian volunteer was shot and killed by a Palestinian sniper on Tuesday.
Hamas declares 'massive response' against Israel
Meanwhile Hamas' military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, declared a series of responsive measures will be taken against Israel, including massive rocket barrages and numerous terror attacks – this in response to the IDF's operations in Gaza over the past several days.
At least 25 Palestinians, including the son of a prominent Hamas strongman have been killed in IDF strikes since Tuesday. Most were gunmen.
In the most recent attack the IDF targeted a Hamas outpost near Gaza City, killing two Hamas members and wounding three others. Earlier on Thursday Israel killed Popular Resistance Committees leader, Raad Abu al-Ful. Palestinian officials said al-Ful's wife also died in the attack on the couple's car.
Also on Thursday Israel evening targeted a car in northern Gaza, killing three Palestinians - a woman and her son on a donkey cart next to the vehicle and an unidentified man, Palestinian hospital officials said. The Israeli military said the airstrike was aimed at a rocket squad.
US, UN weigh in
A US State Department spokesman urged Israel to avoid civilian casualties. "There have been some Israeli actions that have been described as acts of self-defense. Certainly they have every right to act in their self defense. It's well documented the Qassam rockets attacks have been coming out of Gaza and are unabated at this point," he said.
"Certainly in exercising the right to self defense, we would encourage Israel, as we do with our own armed forces, to make every possible effort to avoid any harm to civilians."
Meanwhile United National Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was "deeply concerned at the current escalation of violence in Gaza and southern Israel, as well as in the West Bank."
In a written statement issued by his office, the UN leader said he was "troubled by the heavy bloodshed,
particularly the killing and injuring of civilians on both sides and the potential for further casualties unless the situation is de-escalated.
Ban called for an immediate cessation of Palestinian attacks into Israel, and for maximum restraint on the part of the IDF.
Hanan Greenberg, Shmulik Hadad, Ali Waked, Roni Sofer, Tova Daddon, Yitzhak Benhorin and news agencies contributed to this report