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Israel likely to strike Gaza Strip again

ISRAELI Prime Minister Ehud Olmert threatened painful retaliation against Gaza militants yesterday for rockets still hitting Israel six weeks after its military halted an offensive that was supposed to have permanently stopped them.

Olmert met with his Cabinet to formulate a response now that it appears clear the goal of ending the rocket fire from the Gaza Strip was not achieved.

The Israeli military says Palestinians have launched more than 110 rockets and mortar shells at Israel since the Gaza offensive ended on January 18. On Saturday a rocket crashed into a high school in the coastal city of Ashkelon, causing no injuries because the school was closed for the weekend.

The rockets "will be answered with a painful, harsh, strong and uncompromising response from the security forces," Olmert told his weekly Cabinet meeting.

Many Israelis believe the Gaza operation ended too soon, leaving Hamas in power in Gaza and seemingly undaunted. One of them is hard-line Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's incoming prime minister, who is currently working to cobble together a new ruling coalition and is likely to replace Olmert within weeks.

Israel and Hamas have failed to reach a long-term truce through Egyptian mediation. So far Israel has responded to the rocket fire with airstrikes targeting smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border through which Hamas has smuggled some of its weaponry.

Some in Israel's military blame the government for squandering any deterrent advantage won by the devastating three-week operation.

The offensive was immediately followed by a national election campaign which made Israel's leaders unwilling to become embroiled in new fighting, and the resurgence of the rocket fire has come in the absence of either a long-term ceasefire with Hamas or punishing retaliation, the military officials said on condition of anonymity.

The heightened possibility of renewed hostilities in Gaza came ahead of a week of intense - and possibly crucial - diplomatic activity.

Today top diplomats from around the world convene in Egypt for an international conference on Gaza's reconstruction, with the Palestinians seeking US$2.8 billion in aid.


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