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The IDF plans to ask Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Wednesday for permission to carry out "pinpoint" operations against Gaza-based Hamas terrorist chiefs and infrastructure, in response to an attempt by the Islamist group to kidnap soldiers near the Gaza Strip.
According to IDF sources, a barrage of more than 10 Kassam rockets and 20 mortar shells on the Negev Tuesday morning was meant to provide cover and distract attention from an infiltration by a terrorist cell, whose members intended to kidnap soldiers deployed on the Gaza border.
Analysis: Hamas copies the Hizbullah model
Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, speaking in Rome after meeting with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, said the rocket attacks were a "one-time violation of the truce."
He called on Israel to show restraint in order to avoid a "deterioration" in the region."
Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema said that Rome was concerned about the renewed rocket attacks, and called on Abbas to adhere to the principles set by International Quartet - especially the recognition of Israel.
Earlier in the day, a spokesman for Hamas's armed wing said the group considered the truce over.
"The cease-fire has been over for a long time, and Israel is responsible for that," spokesman Abu Obeida told the Voice of Palestine radio station. "This is a message to the Zionist enemy that our strikes will continue. We are ready to kidnap more and more, and kill more and more of your soldiers."
The security situation was apparently discussed in a telephone call on Tuesday between Olmert and US President George W. Bush. The president called Olmert to wish him well on Independence Day, the Prime Minister's Office said in a statement.
Olmert is scheduled to meet with security chiefs Wednesday morning to discuss the escalation in Gaza and expectations were that the IDF would be given the green light for "pinpoint" operations against Hamas terrorist infrastructure in the Strip.
Defense officials said that the security chiefs would also raise the possibility of renewing targeted killings in the Gaza Strip.
"We will not allow Hamas to hide behind its political identity," Defense Minister Amir Peretz said during consultations Tuesday afternoon at Beit Hanassi in Jerusalem with IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, OC Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin and other security officials.
Tuesday's attacks marked the first time Hamas has acknowledged firing shells and rockets since agreeing to a cease-fire along the Gaza-Israel border in November.
Military sources said the army's heightened alert status, as well as a quick response by ground forces and IAF helicopters that had been patrolling over Gaza, thwarted the kidnap operation in its early stages. According to preliminary reports, no terrorists managed to enter Israel.
The IDF had been on high alert in recent weeks, ever since obtaining intelligence that Hamas was planning to abduct soldiers in a raid similar to the one near Kerem Shalom in June that captured Cpl. Gilad Schalit. According to an IDF source, the tactics used in Tuesday's attack were copied from Hizbullah, which used rockets to distract the IDF in July, when guerrillas abducted reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser near Lebanon.
On Tuesday afternoon, while the main Independence Day ceremony was going on, Peretz held emergency meetings with security officials to discuss how to respond to the attacks.
Government officials said Israel would wait to hear what Hamas's political wing had to say, noting that it was organization's military wing that had declared the cease-fire was now over.
"Israel views in a very grave manner this new stage of the Hamas-led [Palestinian Authority] government, which openly calls for committing terror against Israel, especially on Israel's 59th Independence Day," said the Prime Minister's spokeswoman, Miri Eisen. "Israel reserves the right to respond and [to] defend its citizens at any time, while at the same time seeking out moderates for dialogue."
PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said his government had dedicated much effort to convincing the various Palestinian factions to maintain the truce. Haniyeh went on to say that the factions had adopted a "positive position" on the issue.
The Palestinians were surprised by the aggression Israel was showing toward them, he said. "We made great efforts at keeping the truce and there was a positive Palestinian position, but unfortunately this position was met by expanding the aggression and escalating it against the Palestinian people."
"It's not a Palestinian problem, it is an Israeli problem," Haniyeh said.
Meanwhile, PA government spokesman Ghazi Hamed reiterated that it was interested in continuing the truce, saying that the "security calm" would collapse if Israel continued its aggression.
The escalation in Gaza came up in Tuesday's telephone conversation between Olmert and US President George W. Bush. The president called to congratulate the prime minister on Independence Day. The two men also discussed regional issues.
AP and Jpost.com Staff contributed to the report.