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(photo credit: AP [file])
Twelve Palestinians were reported killed as violence in the Gaza Strip heated up Thursday following a barrage of Kassam rockets and mortar shells on the western Negev beginning Wednesday.
Late Thursday evening, the IAF targeted a Palestinian terrorist cell that was returning from launching a rocket into the western Negev. It was unclear whether the group was harmed although Palestinians were reporting that one of the group's members was killed.
Two rockets were fired into Israel shortly before the strike causing no casualties or damages.
On Thursday morning Hamas members were killed in an IAF air strike in Beit Hanun; this, after a group of five Hamas-affiliated terrorists were killed late Wednesday afternoon when an IAF missile struck their jeep in the Gaza City neighborhood of Zeitoun, Hamas reported.
The army confirmed the strike and said that the vehicle's occupants had been on their way to launch Kassam rockets at Israel.
Government spokesman David Baker said the morning air strike was part of a "continuous policy of preventing terrorist activity against our civilians, including our taking pre-emptive measures as needed to thwart these attacks."
Hamas identified them as members of the Army of Islam, a splinter group involved in the March kidnapping of BBC journalist Alan Johnston, who has since been released. The group is also believed to be among those holding kidnapped IDF Cpl. Gilad Schalit, seized in a cross-border raid in June 2006.
Palestinian sources also reported that elsewhere in Gaza, four civilians were killed after an IDF tank shell hit a residential building in Beit Hanun. Witnesses said the shell fell between two houses and that soldiers also fired from tank-mounted machine guns.
In all, four were killed and 25 wounded by army fire, including five critically, Palestinian hospital doctors said. The army said it was looking into the report.
Early Wednesday evening, a Kassam rocket fired from Gaza hit a home in one of the kibbutzim in the Sha'ar Hanegev Regional Council. No one was reported wounded, but the house was damaged. The attack brought to 10 the number of rockets fired at Israel Wednesday, most of which landed in open territory near Sderot, causing no wounded or damage.
Earlier, The IAF fired at Palestinians responsible for launching Kassam rockets into Israel ftom the Gaza Strip. The army said that no one was wounded in the strikes, but that two rocket launchers were destroyed.
The army said Palestinians also lobbed at least 20 mortar shells into Israel from the southern part of the strip, but no casualties were reported. The Popular Resistance Committees and the Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Earlier Wednesday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that Israel was moving closer to carrying out a large-scale military operation in Gaza in order to put a stop to cross-border rocket and mortar barrages into Israel.
It was his first public hint of plans to combat the fire coming from the Hamas-ruled coastal strip, which Israel last week declared "hostile territory" as a prelude to possible punitive cuts of utilities.
Barak told Army Radio that a large-scale military operation would not be a simple undertaking.
"We are moving closer to a broad and complex operation in Gaza," Barak said.
"It (such an operation) hasn't happened in recent weeks for many reasons .... We're getting closer to this and it should be realized that such an operation is not simple, not from the point of view of the forces taking part, not from the aspect of the length of time we'll have to spend there and not from the aspect of the operational challenges the forces will meet."
Meanwhile, IDF tanks and bulldozers, escorted by attack helicopters, moved into the northern Gaza Strip, staking out open ground from where Palestinians had earlier fired rockets into neighboring Israel, witnesses said. The military had no immediate comment.
Residents of the town of Beit Hanun said about 20 armored vehicles were involved in the operation.
Earlier, the IDF announced an open-ended closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip Wednesday, ahead of the weeklong holiday of Succot, which begins at sunset.
Yaakov Katz contributed to this report.