Israel has threatened to launch a fresh military offensive in Gaza following a wave of airstrikes that marks the most serious escalation of violence in the costal enclave for more than a year. The Israeli military said aircraft bombed four targets yesterday used by Hamas to store and produce weapons in retaliation for 20 rockets fired from the Palestinian territory over the past month.
Reinforcing the message delivered by Israel's warplanes, the country's deputy prime minister, Silvan Shalom warned Hamas that patience in the Jewish state was wearing thin.
"If this rocket fire against Israel does not stop, it seems we will have to raise the level of our activity and step up our actions against Hamas," he told Israel radio.
"We won't allow frightened children to again be raised in bomb shelters and so, in the end, it will force us to launch another military operation," he said.
Amid fears that the situation could deteriorate and uncertainty as to how Hamas might respond, the Foreign Office called on both Israel and the movement to show restraint.
"We are concerned by today's strikes and the escalation of violence in Gaza and southern Israel over the past week," a spokesman said. "We encourage Israelis and Palestinians to focus efforts on negotiation and to engage urgently in US-backed proximity talks."
Three of the Israeli strikes hit an area near Khan Younis, in southern Gaza. Two missiles hit a guard post of Hamas's armed wing, the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades.
A fourth raid destroyed a workshop in the refugee camp of Nusseirat, in central Gaza, according to Hamas. Other witnesses said a small dairy factory was destroyed in western Gaza City.
Moawiya Hassanein, the head of the Palestinian emergency services in Gaza, said three Palestinian children, aged two, four and 11, had been hit by flying glass.
The air strikes are the fiercest since Israel's military invasion of Gaza. Operation Cast Lead, 15 months ago. From a military perspective military invasion of Gaza last year, was a success: Hamas stopped its almost daily rocket attacks on Israeli towns and cities near Gaza after the Holy Land's most volatile corner was pounded into submission.
But the operation came at a significant human cost that scarred Israel's international reputation. According to Israeli human rights groups, hundreds of Palestinian civilians were killed, including 252 children.
Even as it has held its fire, Hamas is believed to have been busy restocking its arsenals. Responsibility for the occasional rocket attacks since the end of the invasion have been claimed mostly by other radical Islamist groups operating in Gaza.
The escalation in rocket attacks over recent weeks coincided with an Israeli decision to expand a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, captured by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day war but regarded by Palestinians as their future capital. The announcement of plans to build 1,600 settler homes came during a visit to Israel by Joe Biden, the US vice-president, to broker proximity peace talks. The move put a strain on US relations with Israel and on the Barack Obama's most senior aides described it as an "affront" to the US.
The Hamas movement's prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh yesterday called on the international community to stop "Israeli escalation". Mr Haniyeh insisted that Hamas was exerting pressure on smaller factions to cease their rocket attacks.
While indicating its commitment to maintaining an uneasy status quo with Israel, Hamas has acknowledged that its fighters were involved in an attack last week that killed two Israeli soldiers near the town of Khan Younis in southern Gaza.
At the time, Hamas suggested that it would use the justification of "self-defence" to resume attacks on Israeli troops who entered Gaza, a significant alteration of its recent rules of engagement that will have alarmed Israel's military commanders.
Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but retains control of the territory's borders. Its troops make regular incursions into the enclave in order to protect a buffer zone and enforce a controversial blockade that the United Nations says has caused a humanitarian crisis.
Few ordinary people in Gaza want Hamas to resume hostilities with Israel, although that may change should Israeli air strikes kill civilians.
Yesterday's Israeli attacks mainly struck Hamas military targets, although some witnesses in Gaza said that a dairy factory and a police station unconnected to the movement were also bombed.
Three children were slightly injured by flying glass, but there were no fatalities.