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Israeli Troops Gaze Into Gaza

Rockets and mortar rounds continued to hit Israeli targets on Sunday, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Sunday warned there would be no holds barred in stopping an upsurge in Palestinian violence ahead of Israel's Gaza Strip pullout.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas pledged Sunday to do all he can to stop rocket and mortar attacks by Palestinian militants against Israeli settlements in Gaza and towns just outside.

Talking to Palestinian reporters at his Gaza City office, Abbas said, "We are determined to stop the launching of the homemade rockets, whatever the price. We are going to do our utmost to stop these rockets. I cannot promise how much time it will take me."

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, speaking at a weekly Cabinet meeting, said Israel would launch a "massive, prolonged and intricate" military strike if the Palestinian Authority didn't curb militants who have sent rockets and mortar rounds smashing into Israeli targets in recent days, a meeting participant said.

Thousands of Israeli troops massed along the Gaza border in preparation for a possible ground offensive. Israel Radio reported that Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz told Cabinet ministers preparations for the strike were complete.

Abbas said he has "confirmation" that Israel wants to invade Gaza. "The Americans told us that there is an Israeli intention," he said, warning, "If this happens, this will sabotage everything."

The Palestinian leader blamed Israel for the tension. "Israel does not want peace or security, but we don't want to be dragged to their playground," he said. "Maybe they are looking for an excuse to delay the withdrawal."

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat cautioned that an incursion would have "disastrous" consequences. Militants vowed to retaliate against any Israeli military assault.

Two Israelis were wounded seriously by a mortar that landed on a house in the Gaza settlement of Neve Dekalim, rescue officials said. It was the second house in the settlement to suffer such an attack in as many days.

Soon afterward, witnesses in Gaza City said the Israeli air force fired missiles at a car in northern Gaza on Sunday. Two men in the car escaped, but a bystander was seriously injured, the witnesses said. The Israeli military refused to comment.

An Israeli sniper also shot and killed a senior Hamas field commander in a targeted strike earlier in the day after another mortar round hit the same community, the army and Hamas officials said.

Troops shot and killed an armed Palestinian who tried to infiltrate another Gaza settlement and ignored orders to stop, the military said. Another infiltrator escaped, it added.

And an Israeli shell seriously wounded a 16-year-old Palestinian in the Khan Younis refugee camp, Palestinian rescue workers said. The military said troops fired on a group of men who were launching mortars.

Palestinian police, meanwhile, began removing Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah flags from the streets of Gaza early Sunday, leaving only the Palestinian national flag.

A Palestinian suicide bombing and a rocket attack last week killed a total of six Israelis. Palestinian militants have fired more than 100 projectiles at Israeli targets since Thursday, in one of the heaviest onslaughts since the two sides declared a now-moribund truce in February.

Also Sunday, Israeli police declared a mass march by settlers in the Gaza Strip planned for Monday would be Gaza illegal. Settler leaders plan to send tens of thousands of protesters to the region to try to foil the planned pullout from the territory next month. Last week Israel closed the Gaza Strip to nonresidents to prevent opponents of the pullout from camping out to interfere with the evacuation.

The violence has cast a pall over the withdrawal plans, and has sent international mediators scrambling to try to restore calm ahead of the pullout.

"I spoke to the heads of the defense establishment ... and informed them that there are to be no restraints on our operations," Sharon told Cabinet ministers at the start of a weekly Cabinet meeting

Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim told Israel Radio earlier in the day that the military would decide soon whether to launch a ground offensive before or after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pays a snap visit to the region this weekend to try to halt the Palestinian attacks.

"It depends what will develop in the coming hours," Boim said. "It's a matter of hours. We will not suffer such a heavy rain of Qassam (rockets.)"

The army plans to invade northern Gaza — the area militants use to fire rockets at Sderot — but a military official said on condition of anonymity that the deployment of thousands of soldiers along the border is meant more as a threat for the time being.

Erekat said an Israeli incursion into Gaza "will have a disastrous impact on the disengagement plan, and all efforts to make it a successful and smooth and peaceful disengagement."

Mushir Masri, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said an Israeli incursion would touch off more violence.

"They should understand that by this serious escalation they have opened the gates of Hell, and if they enter Gaza we are not going to stand by silently," Masri said. Hamas, he said, was re-evaluating the truce,

An Egyptian delegation arrived in Gaza Sunday to try to salvage the tattered cease-fire. Masri said Hamas, which is to meet with the Egyptians later in the day, welcomed efforts to end the tension.

Mofaz postponed a trip to Washington because of the escalating violence, ministry officials said on condition of anonymity. Mofaz was to have left for the U.S. on Saturday, but now plans to go later in the week.

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