A Palestinian rocket struck an Israeli army base early Tuesday, wounding 50 soldiers. The incident drew Israeli calls for a major military operation against rocket squads in the Gaza Strip.
The wounded soldiers are all recent recruits undergoing basic training at an army base just north of the Gaza Strip. The soldiers were sleeping when the rocket struck the base. Eleven soldiers suffered severe injuries, another 39 were lightly injured, and several others suffered a shock from the attack.
Tuesday's incident marks the largest number of injuries ever sustained in a single Palestinian rocket attack, and came at a time when Israeli politicians and defense officials have been calling for a more aggressive Israeli response.
"Long ago, several years ago, we should have responded strongly...In the end we will have no choice but to act," Cabinet minister Eli Yishai told Army Radio on Tuesday morning.
On Tuesday morning, four Palestinian civilians were wounded by Israeli fire in northern Gaza, hospital officials said. The army confirmed that ground forces attacked the area where militants earlier launched the rocket that hit the base.
Islamic Jihad, a small radical militant group, claimed responsibility for the rocket attack. Gaza's Hamas rulers have not been actively involved, but have done nothing to halt the rocket fire.
Sderot, a working-class town of 22,000 near the Israel-Gaza border, and surrounding towns have been battered by thousands of projectiles launched nearly daily from Gaza. The inaccurate rockets have killed 12 people in the past seven years, injured dozens more and disrupted daily life in the region.
Another rocket hit an Israeli kibbutz near Gaza several hours after the attack on the base, the army said, causing no casualties. Hamas militants announced they had launched a mortar barrage at Kerem Shalom, a border crossing where humanitarian aid crosses from Israel into Gaza.
Attacks last week on Sderot, including one that landed near a crowded day care center, led parents to pull their children out of school and brought demands for harsh retaliation. Israel's Security Cabinet last week rejected calls for a large-scale Gaza invasion but threatened to cut water, electricity and fuel supplies to Gaza.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has repeatedly said that Israel would show no restraint in its efforts to stem the attacks from Gaza, but has thus far resisted ordering a land invasion.
The military carries out almost daily ground and air strikes aimed at rocket-launching squads in northern Gaza, but the crude rockets continue to baffle the high-tech military.
Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, but militants continued launching rockets at Israeli towns. The Israeli army has mounted several large-scale military operations in Gaza over the past two years, with casualties on both sides, but those moves had no long-term effect on the number of rockets hitting Israel.
The pre-dawn attack comes a day after Israeli and Palestinian leaders met in Jerusalem in advance of a November conference called by U.S. President George Bush.
At their three-hour summit conference Monday, Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas discussed "ways of advancing the peace process and of reaching a two-state solution," said Olmert spokesman David Baker.
Abbas called the talks "successful" and said two working groups would be set up to draft outlines of a peace accord in advance of the November conference.
In gestures toward Abbas, Israel also pledged to release some Palestinian prisoners during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan that begins this week and work on easing travel restrictions in the West Bank.
Olmert hopes to bolster Abbas and his Western-backed government in the West Bank after the Islamic Hamas seized power in the Gaza Strip in June. Abbas' subsequent ouster of Hamas from the Palestinian government has freed the moderate leader to pursue peace efforts with Israel.
Abbas has condemned the recent wave of Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel, saying the barrages are threatening the peace process. While Abbas claims to have authority over Gaza, he has little influence there following the Hamas takeover.