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Gaza attacks continue to escalate

Palestinian militants fired more than a dozen rockets at southern Israel and Israeli warplanes killed four militants in the Gaza Strip in the most intense fighting since Israel's 2008-2009 offensive in the Hamas-ruled territory.

The escalating series of strikes and counter-strikes has killed 18 Gaza residents since it began on Thursday, and the continuing clashes are increasing the probability of a full-scale military confrontation.

Israeli officials said the air strikes would continue as long as the rocket attacks persist. Hamas officials insisted they were trying to restore calm, but said they were prepared to fight.

"Hamas will not stand idle in front of this escalation," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said. "We have exercised a limited response so far, but we warn the occupation against continuing with their crimes."

After two years of relative calm, the situation began to escalate last weekend when an air strike killed three Palestinian militants who Israel said were plotting to carry out a cross-border kidnapping.

On Thursday, Hamas militants fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli school bus, wounding two people on board, including a teenage boy.

Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Hamas of crossing a line and vowed a harsh response. Hamas says Israel has used excessive force in its retaliation, which has killed six civilians and wounded more than 65.

Gaza militants fired 17 Grad-style Katyusha rockets and seven mortar shells into Israel in what Israeli police said was the biggest single-day bombardment since the Gaza war.

Several missiles fell in uninhabited areas near the southern Israeli cities of Ashkelon and Beersheba, while seven were intercepted by Israel's new missile shield, Iron Dome.

There were no reports of injuries.

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