AFP - Israel threatened on Sunday to launch a major offensive against the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip as violence simmered around the impoverished territory days after the end of a truce with the Islamists.
The two frontrunners in the race to become prime minister after a snap election in February both vowed to topple Hamas, which has run Gaza since violently seizing power there in June 2007.
Militant rocket and mortar fire continued on Sunday, the Israeli army said, reporting that one person was slightly wounded.
Israel launched two air raids late Sunday targeting rocket launchers and an unidentified armed Palestinian group, a military spokesman said. Palestinian hospital sources said three activists and a child were wounded.
"Israel must topple the Hamas rule in Gaza and a government under my command will do just that," Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, leader of the governing Kadima party, was quoted as saying by Israeli media.
"Israel must react when it is fired upon, must re-establish its force of dissuasion and stop the rockets."
Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the right-wing Likud party which is leading in opinion polls, echoed the sentiment.
"In the long run, we have no choice but to topple Hamas rule," he was quoted as saying by the Ynet news website as he toured the southern Israeli town of Sderot, which has borne the brunt of militant rocket attacks from Gaza.
"Right now we have to go from passive response to active assault."
Senior defence officials said after the weekly cabinet meeting that Israel was preparing to take action to halt the rocket strikes.
"We are preparing our response to the Hamas threat, with the decision yet to be taken on the timing and the scale," Amos Gilad, a senior adviser to Defence Minister Ehud Barak, told public radio.
A senior Israeli defence official told AFP that a major military confrontation in the besieged territory was unavoidable.
"It is obvious where we are heading in Gaza. The situation is intolerable but clear. The army's considerations are the only thing that is deciding when events will unfold," the official said on condition of anonymity.
In Beit Hanun in the northern Gaza Strip, a Palestinian woman in her 40s was wounded by shrapnel from a tank shell on Sunday, a Palestinian medic said, but the Israeli army denied opening fire in the area.
The army spokesman said militants had fired 19 rockets and mortar shells at Israel, wounding one person slightly and causing some damage.
The armed wing of the radical Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which is loosely linked to the Fatah movement of president Mahmud Abbas, claimed it was behind the rockets.
Tensions around Gaza have risen steadily since Friday, when Hamas said it would not renew a six-month truce with Israel that came into effect in June after months of Egyptian mediation.
Since then, Gaza militants have launched several dozen rockets, causing some damage and slightly wounding a handful of civilians, and Israel has retaliated with air strikes, killing one militant and several other Palestinians.
Although several Israeli ministers have for weeks been calling for the army to oust the Islamist masters of Gaza, observers say the government is wary of launching a major offensive less than two months before the election for fear it would not be able to score a decisive victory.
"The politicians aren't in any rush to reach election day with an incomplete military operation and only partial results hanging around their necks," wrote military analyst Alex Fishman in top-selling daily Yediot Aharonot.
"And worse than that, to be accused of having ordered a military operation just to improve their chances at the ballot box," he said.
Israel responded to violence that erupted around Gaza in early November by tightening its blockade of the territory and halting deliveries of humanitarian aid and other basic supplies.
The over-crowded and aid-dependent land of some 1.5 million people has been subject to an Israeli blockade and repeated raids since 2006, when Hamas won Palestinian elections and later joined in a deadly cross-border raid which saw militants capture an Israeli soldier who remains hostage to this day.