The Palestinians on Saturday expressed fear that Israel was preparing for a massive military attack on the Gaza Strip to avoid releasing more Palestinian prisoners as required by the recent exchange deal with Hamas.

Islamic Jihad said that the deaths of five of its men in Rafah, the southern Gaza Strip, on Saturday was an Israeli attempt to avoid fulfilling the second phase of the prisoner exchange agreement that saw the release of IDF soldier Gilad Schalit.

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The second phase of the Egyptian-brokered deal calls for the release of 550 Palestinian prisoners in the coming weeks.

The first phase occurred on October 18 when Israel released 477 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Schalit.

Abu Ahmed, spokesman for the armed wing of Islamic Jihad, called the Israeli air strike a “cowardly attack.”

He said Israel launched the strike to avoid fulfilling the second phase of the “humiliating” prisoner exchange.

“The occupation perpetrated this crime believing that the Arab media is preoccupied with the revolutions in the Arab world and does not care about what happens in the Palestinian territories,” Abu Ahmed said.

However, he ruled out the possibility that Israel would wage an all-out war on the Gaza Strip, “because it does not have the courage and ability to do so and because its soldiers are afraid of being taken captive like Gilad Schalit.”

The spokesman said that his organization would respond to the killing of its men “with full force.”

One of the men killed in the air raid was identified as Ahmed al-Sheikh Khalil, a top leader of the armed wing of Islamic Jihad.

A few years ago, Khalil narrowly escaped another attempt on his life by the IDF, but lost an arm. Four of his brothers, who were also members of Islamic Jihad, have been killed by the IDF.

Mohammed al-Hindi, a political leader of Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, said that from now on his men would respond “immediately and directly” to any Israeli assassination.

“Today’s crime won’t pass unpunished,” he warned. He also said the killing of the five gunmen was designed to foil the release of more Palestinians from Israeli prisons.

Hamas said that it was holding consultations with Islamic Jihad and other groups about responding to Saturday’s targeted killings in Rafah.

Abu Obaidah, spokesman for Izzadin Kassam, the armed wing of Hamas, accused Israel of seeking to “spoil” Palestinian celebrations over the release of prisoners in the Schalit deal.

“The Zionist enemy is trying to ease the feeling of frustration and defeat brought about by the blessed [prisoner exchange] deal,” Abu Obaidah said.

The Palestinian Authority called for “ending Israeli escalation in the Gaza Strip.”

Nabil Abu Rudaineh, spokesman for PA President Mahmoud Abbas, also called on Palestinian groups “not to give Israel an excuse to launch another war and tighten the siege on the Gaza Strip.”

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