GAZA/JERUSALEM Israel said it was poised to escalate attacks on the Gaza Strip on Sunday following a surge of rocket and mortar salvoes by Hamas and other factions in the Palestinian enclave.
A missile strike wounded four Israeli troops on jeep patrol along the Gaza boundary on Saturday, triggering army shelling that killed four Palestinian civilians and, in turn, dozens of short-range rocket launches out of Gaza that paralysed Israel's southern border towns.
Two Gaza militants died in the ensuing Israeli air strikes.
Israel went to war against Hamas in the winter of 2008-2009 but has shown little appetite for a new round that could strain fraught relations with the new Islamist-rooted government in neighbouring Egypt, which made peace with Israel in 1979.
But conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be reluctant to seem weak ahead of a January 22 general election that opinion polls currently predict he will win.
"The world needs to understand that Israel will not sit with arms crossed when faced by attempts to hurt us. And we are prepared to harshen the response," Netanyahu told his cabinet in remarks aired by Israeli broadcasters.
After not openly taking part in Saturday's fighting, which included the firing of dozens of Palestinian short-range rockets and mortar bombs, Hamas issued a joint statement with five other factions claiming responsibility for Sunday's fresh salvoes.
Though hostile to the Jewish state, Islamist Hamas has in the past avoided such clashes as it tries to consolidate its Gaza rule and convince Egypt's new rulers that it can be a stabilising force.
PROBING THE FENCE
Israeli officials have at times noted Hamas's efforts to impose calm in Gaza, which it has governed since 2007, and maintain a policy of holding it solely responsible for any violence from the coastal territory, whoever is firing.
Four Israelis were wounded by rockets on Sunday, a military spokeswoman said. Southern Israeli municipalities ordered residents to shelters and shuttered some schools.
Islamic Jihad, a smaller faction than Hamas which often operates independently, said one rocket crewman was killed by an Israeli air strike on Sunday, after another member was killed on Saturday while photographing the fighting.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak, a centrist in Israel's coalition government, played down speculation that the upcoming election was affecting Gaza policy.
"I don't think the election should be a consideration in how we respond. It is not meant to make us avoid action ... nor is it meant to provoke us into grabbing some kind of opportunity for an operation," Barak told Israel's Army Radio.
The 2008-2009 Gaza conflict coincided with an election campaign and, four years on, some Israeli analysts see the same dynamics building.
Barak described Saturday's jeep ambush as part of a Palestinian strategy of raising the cost of Israel's countermeasures against cross-border infiltration. Israeli forces often mount hunts for tunnels and landmines on the inside of the Gaza boundary, creating a no-go zone for Palestinians.
"Of course we don't accept their attempt to change the rules," Barak said. "The essence of the struggle is over the fence. We intend to enable the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) to work not just on our side but on the other side as well."
Palestinians said four of Saturday's dead were civilians hit by an Israeli tank shell while paying respects at a crowded mourning tent in Gaza's Shijaia neighbourhood. Israel denies targeting civilians. (Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Douglas Hamilton)