For background information, check out our SPECIAL REPORT: GAZA UPHEAVAL.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz instructed the Israel Air Force to launch an all-out continuous offensive - Operation First Rain - against Hamas and lslamic Jihad targets in the Gaza Strip, focusing on the cells that fired nearly 40 Kassam rockets at Sderot and other Israeli communities in the western Negev over the weekend.
At least five Israelis have been wounded in the barrages.
The IDF on Saturday beefed up its presence along the northern Gaza security fence in preparation for a possible ground offensive, with armor and artillery units poised to act when and if the order is given. In response to the ongoing Kassam rocket salvos, the IAF launched five separate strikes against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, killing four Hamas members and wounding 17 Palestinians.
Hours after the IDF evacuation of the Gaza Strip earlier this month, ending a 38-year presence, Mofaz and Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz warned of a harsh response to any Kassam rocket or mortar shell attacks into Israel after the pullout.
The violent upsurge began soon after 19 Palestinians were killed and 80 wounded when a car carrying Kassam rockets during a Hamas military rally in the Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza exploded on Friday night. Women and children were among the dead.
While Israel flatly denied any involvement a claim later backed by Palestinian Authority officials Hamas responded by firing salvos of Kassam rockets into Israel. A statement issued by PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah group said, "The Fatah Central Committee holds the Hamas movement fully responsible for the victims of the military parade [that was held] among civilians."
Last week, Abbas ordered Hamas and other terror groups to refrain from holding military parades among the civilian population, with a decision handed down to stop such activities by the weekend.
On Friday night, in messages conveyed to Palestinian counterparts, Mofaz stressed that Israel holds the PA responsible for the situation. Attempts by Hamas to implicate Israel in the rally explosion and use it as an excuse to attack Israel were "unacceptable and insufferable," said Mofaz.
At an emergency meeting held by Mofaz and the senior IDF and security echelon at his Tel Aviv headquarters early Saturday morning, the defense minister ordered security forces to embark on a series of varied and harsh operations against Hamas and Islamic Jihad locations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, including renewing targeted killings against specific terrorists.
In addition, Israel on Saturday morning imposed a general closure on Gaza, Judea and Samaria, and the Jordan Valley until further notice.
Mofaz also demanded that the PA deploy its security forces in northern Gaza to prevent the terror cells from launching further rocket attacks. Despite this, attacks on Israel continued throughout Saturday.
On Saturday afternoon, the air force dropped flyers in Arabic to Gaza residents warning them of harsh consequences if the attacks continued.
"Hamas fires Kassam rockets at Israeli citizens in order to cover up their responsibility for the killing of Palestinians in the parade in Jabalya. Hamas, serving its own interests, has resorted to systematic lies that will harm you and drag you once again into despair and destruction, and has resulted in a closure of the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian Authority is responsible and must act immediately to stop the Kassam rocket attacks emanating from areas under its control and dismantle the infrastructure. The Israel Defense Forces will act harshly against anyone who threatens the security of its citizens," the flyers said.
Israel launched five air strikes over the weekend. The latest was early Saturday evening shortly after a salvo of four Kassam rockets were fired at Sderot, lightly wounding one civilian.
IAF helicopters fired missiles at an area in Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza used by terrorists to fire the Kassam rockets at Israel. On Saturday afternoon, helicopter air-to-ground missile salvos killed four Hamas members in two vehicles traveling in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City. Palestinians reported that one senior member identified as Rawad Farahat, involved in manufacturing the rockets, was among the casualties. The others were identified as Muhammad Drimeli, Sami Abu Asi and Muhammad Di'ri. Farahat is the brother of Mohammed Farahat, the terrorist who infiltrated Atzmona and shot and killed five Israeli teenagers in March 2002. In a written statement confirming the air strike, the IDF spokesman declared that Israel holds the PA security forces responsible for halting and thwarting all terror activities.
Earlier in the day, the air force also fired missiles in Beit Hanoun, there were no reports of casualties.
Before dawn, the air force conducted its separate raids, and targeted buildings and storerooms as well as hitting open areas in the Jabalya refugee camp, the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City and the city itself.
Two of the targets were suspected weapons-storage facilities in southern Gaza and a school in a crowded Gaza City neighborhood. Medical officials said 17 people, including women and children, were lightly wounded.
The Gaza City attack hit the Akram school, established by Hamas' founder, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who was killed in an air strike last year. Five nearby homes were also damaged. The army said the school was used by Hamas to raise funds and assist terrorists.
On Friday afternoon, Kassam rockets were fired at Kibbutz Nahal Oz, Kibbutz Kfar Aza, and Kibbutz Zikim, no one was wounded but there was property damage. Since midnight Friday, 28 Kassam rockets fell in Sderot. In one pre-dawn incident on Saturday, three Israeli civil guard volunteers were wounded, one moderately by shrapnel. Seven other residents were treated for shock.
Later in the day, another civilian was lightly wounded from shrapnel when a rocket struck the town. Seven other residents were treated for shock. Kassam rockets also fell near Kibbutz Re'im.
With the renewal of rocket attacks on Sderot, Mayor Eli Moyal declared the situation a test case for the government.