Israel will lash back at Hamas, defense officials vowed Saturday night, after the terrorist group launched its largest attack since Operation Cast Lead two years ago with the firing of more than 50 mortar shells into the south of the country on Saturday.

Two people sustained light wounds from shrapnel.

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50 mortar shells fired into Israel, 2 injured

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said he viewed seriously the “criminal attacks by Hamas on Israeli citizens. Israel will take all necessary measures to defend its citizens,” he added.

If the current round of violence continues to escalate, the IDF will consider resuming targeted killings against Hamas commanders and senior operatives in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas’s so-called “return to direct terror activity” began Friday with the firing of a guided anti-tank missile at an IDF jeep on patrol along the Gaza border.

This is the second time in a month that a guided anti-tank missile has been fired from the Gaza Strip. The IDF believes that Hamas and possibly other organizations have a significant arsenal including Kornet, Fagot and Sagger-guided anti-tank missiles.

Hamas fired 54 mortar shells into communities in the western Negev within a period of about 15 minutes early in the morning, causing extensive damage to several homes on a kibbutz, a police spokesman said.

One shell landed on the rooftop of a kindergarten, but there was no one inside because it was Shabbat.

Hamas’s military wing, the Kassam Martyrs Brigades, claimed responsibility for the mortar fire. In all of 2010, 215 mortars were fired into Israel.

The IDF immediately responded to the mortar barrage with tank and helicopter attacks against 10 different Hamas targets.

One Hamas security official was killed and five other Palestinians were reportedly injured in the strikes, Palestinian sources said.

Defense officials said that additional attacks were being considered. Following Operation Cast Lead, Hamas had refrained from direct involvement in rocket and mortar fire against Israel – at times even cracking down on other terrorist organizations to prevent their fire into Israel.

The decision to resume mortar fire on Saturday was believed to have been made by Ahmed Jabari, commander of the Hamas military wing – and was possibly against the position of the Hamas political echelon in Gaza, headed by Ismail Haniyeh.

Hamas’s decision to launch the attack was understood by the IDF as a response to the Wednesday afternoon attack against a Hamas position in which two Hamas operatives were killed.

In the past year, Israel has also rarely bombed manned Hamas positions.

Following the Saturday attacks, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman instructed Israel’s mission to the United Nations to lodge a formal complaint against the mortar attacks.

The attack occurred at a time when the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are engaged in unity talks, Lieberman said.

The timing is a testament to the fact, he said, that international support for unilateral Palestinian statehood would allow for the creation of a “terrorist state whose first and main objective would be the destruction of Israel.”

The Palestinians “occasionally change their tactics, but not their skin,” Lieberman added.

One building in the Eshkol Regional Council sustained extensive damage – although a majority of the projectiles landed in open areas, local officials reported.

The regional council is inhabited predominantly by farmers, and has been the target of Palestinian shelling for several years.

Eyal Brandeis, a kibbutz secretary in the Eshkol Regional Council, and the head of a local emergency response team, said that the injured were a married couple who were on their way to a bomb shelter when one of the mortars struck.

“It happened just as they entered the room,” Brandeis said. “The couple was responding to instructions we sent out in a cell phone text message calling on all residents to seek shelter. They ran to the room, and shrapnel went through the window just before they could close it.”

The man suffered shrapnel injuries to his back, while the woman was injured in her hand, Brandeis added.

“We are used to sporadic rocket and mortar fire, but this was not the daily show we are used to,” Brandeis said, referring to the high number of mortars fired at his community on Saturday. “Luckily, we escaped with few injuries. We’ll have to get through this.”

Ronit Minaker, a spokeswoman for the Eshkol Regional Council, said residents had been ordered to stay indoors for the duration of the morning.

“People were compliant with the safety instructions,” she said. “We’re not used to this kind of massive fire. But we have experienced it before, and we know how to respond. Our residents expect the government to do everything it can to end this.

They also expect the government to construct safe rooms in the many communities that still lack them.”

Local authorities said on Saturday that they were in the midst of a legal campaign aimed at forcing the government to deploy the Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system along the Gaza border. The Iron Dome, however, is not meant to protect against short-range mortar fire.

Officials are petitioning the Supreme Court to order the state to deploy the system to protect communities situated at least four kilometers away from the border, and beyond.

The Supreme Court has ordered the state to reply to the petition within 30 days.

On Saturday night, IDF troops shot dead two Palestinians believed to be trying to cross the Gaza border into Israel, military sources said.

In an interview with Channel 2 TV broadcast on Saturday night, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that he was “more determined than ever to reach a [peace] solution with Israel.”

With regard to reconciliation efforts with Hamas, he said, “Hamas has committed terrible crimes, but they are still part of the Palestinian people.”

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