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2 die as Gaza rockets draw Israel strikes

JERUSALEM--Gaza militants pummeled southern Israel with dozens of rockets and mortars on Wednesday, and Israeli airstrikes killed two Palestinians in a sharp escalation of violence following a landmark visit to the coastal territory by the leader of Qatar.

Hostilities have been simmering for weeks, but erupted into barrages from Gaza immediately after the Qatari ruler left the territory Tuesday. Militants from the ruling Hamas movement joined the fray, undercutting the emir's appeal to avoid confrontation with Israel.

Israeli leaders vowed that their country would not reconcile itself to attacks from the coastal strip.

“We didn't ask for this escalation and didn't initiate it,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after touring a missile defense battery. “But if it continues, we are prepared to embark on a far more extensive and penetrating operation.”

Asked if Israel was considering a ground operation in the Palestinian territory, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Israel Radio that “if we need a ground operation there will be a ground operation. We will do whatever necessary to stop this wave” of violence.

The Israeli military said 72 rockets and mortars landed in Israel by mid-afternoon, and that Israeli aircraft struck Gaza four times.

Hamas' military wing and a smaller militant faction claimed credit for the rocket and mortar fire.

The smaller group — the Popular Resistance Committees — said one of its members died in one of the airstrikes, and Gaza health official Dr. Ashraf al-Kidra said another Gaza man died of wounds sustained in an attack Tuesday night that killed two militants. No militant group claimed him as a member.

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Relatives of Palestinian Hamas militant Ismail al-Tili mourn as a boy cries while looking at his body, unseen, during his funeral in Beit Lahia, northern Gaza Strip.

(AFP)

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