Tens of thousands of Gazans on Friday protested against the Israeli raids that have killed more than 30 Palestinians, as Israel mulled a major ground operation to stop rocket fire from the Hamas-run territory.
The demonstrators, in response to Hamas calls, poured into the streets throughout the impoverished and isolated territory to denounce Israel's air strikes whose victims have included six children.
"They've killed my right to childhood," read a sign held by a child, his face painted red and dressed in a white funeral shroud, who attended the largest rally in the northern town of Jabaliya.
A senior Hamas official earlier told worshippers at a Gaza City mosque that the Islamists who have ruled for more than eight months faced war.
"Gaza today faces a real war, a crazy war led by the enemy against our people," said Ismail Haniya, the premier in a Hamas-led government which Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas fired after the Islamists seized control of Gaza.
Haniya lashed out at the US administration, which he claimed backs the Israeli attacks by portraying them as "legitimate self-defence." He also accused the Arab world of "encouraging the Israeli aggression" through its silence.
In Israel, Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai told army radio that "we will not shy away from any action" to halt the near-daily rocket fire from Gaza.
"By intensifying the rocket fire and extending their reach they are bringing on to themselves a worse catastrophe as we will use all means to defend ourselves," Vilnai warned.
Israel, he said, "will have no choice" but to launch a widescale ground operation, he said, a day after Defence Minister Ehud Barak said that such action was being considered.
A Palestinian civilian died in Gaza on Friday of injuries received in an Israeli strike the previous day, bringing to 31 the number of people killed in the raids since early Wednesday, including six children, medics said.
During the same period, Gaza militants have fired over 125 rockets at Israel, according to the Israeli army.
The attacks from Gaza injured a handful of people and killed a civilian - the first Israeli to die as a result of the near-daily rocket fire since May.
On Friday, six people in Gaza - including three children aged five, six and 12 - were wounded in Israeli raids targeting rocket launchers in the northern town of Jabaliya, medics and witnesses said.
An army spokeswoman said the military had launched "three attacks against zones in the northern Gaza Strip from which rockets are fired."
The violence has overshadowed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process which was revived at a US-hosted conference in late November but has made little progress since.
The latest escalation around Gaza flared early Wednesday when an Israeli strike killed five Hamas militants in the southern town of Khan Yunis. In retaliation, the Palestinians launched a barrage of rockets into southern Israel.
Several of the rockets have hit the coastal city of Ashkelon, raising fears inside Israel that Gaza militants are receiving longer-range projectiles and stirring calls for a ground operation.
A five-month incursion in 2006 - conducted after Gaza militants seized an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid - killed several hundred Palestinians but failed to stop the rockets.
The chief of Israel's left-wing Meretz party, Yossi Beilin, said Hamas had offered a truce around Gaza over the past two weeks but the overtures had been rejected by the Israeli leadership, which brands the movement a terror outfit. (AFP)
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