Hamas gunmen fired a barrage of rockets and mortar shells at Israel from the northern Gaza Strip on Tuesday morning, security officials said.
Hamas' military wing, the Izz el-Din al-Qassam Brigades, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that a five-month ceasefire with Israel along the Gaza border "no longer exists," the French news agency AFP reported. A statement issued by the brigades in Gaza City said the attack was in response to "Israel's crimes in the West Bank."
The army and the police said ten Qassam rockets and over a dozen mortar shells landed in open fields in the western Negev.
No injuries were reported but police said damage to property has been reported by residents of an unidentified community.
The army responded by dispatching helicopters to intercept the gunmen behind the attacks. Missiles were fired at launch pads used to wage the attacks, the army said.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert consulted a number of his military advisors about a possible response to the attack.
"For the first time, the Hamas government has taken responsibility for a criminal terror attack which includes the firing of missiles into Israel," a senior aide told Ynet. "Israel needs no evidence to prove that this is Hamas' real face."
Minister for Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman said Tuesday that Israel's continued restraint was being interpreted as weakness and was encouraging terror groups to fire more rockets towards its territory.
"We need to take immediate steps to ensure the safety of Sderot's residents," Lieberman said.
Hamas claimed its gunmen fired 28 Qassam rockets and 61 mortar shells at Israel on Tuesday morning.
The Islamic group has largely abided by a November ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian armed groups along the Gaza border, but the attack could signal a change of direction. Palestinian sources said Hamas commanders are split over the ceasefire as many want to renew attacks against the Jewish State.
The Islamic group's political leaders forged a national unity government with President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party last month in a bid to end an international aid embargo imposed on the Palestinian Authority.
The attack coincided with celebrations to mark the 59th anniversary of Israel's establishment.
"Unfortunately, rockets and mortar shells fell nearly everywhere. I am invited today to a party in the Ministry of Defense and I might disrupt the celebration to remind that the 40 thousand people living in Sderot and other communities near Gaza have not been able to celebrate for the last six years," said Alon Shuster, the head of Shaar Hanegev, a community near the Gaza Strip.
A Qassam rocket hit a house in the southern city of Sderot on Saturday evening, leaving six people in need of treatment for shock. Two other rockets landed in open fields outside the city.
Shmulik Haddad and Hanan Greenberg contributed to this report