Last updated: February 19. 2013 5:27PM - 198 Views

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israel killed the commander of the Hamas military wing in one of some 20 airstrikes on the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, the heaviest barrage on the Palestinian territory in four years in retaliation for renewed rocket fire on southern Israel.

Gaza's health minister said 10 people were killed -- two of them young children -- while the Israeli military said its attack was just the beginning of a major offensive and warned it could escalate with a ground attack.

Palestinian militants responded to the attack with renewed rocket fire. The military said its Iron Dome defense system intercepted 13 rockets from Gaza. Israeli media said the rockets were shot down over the city of Beersheba.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel could not tolerate continued rocket attacks against its citizens and that the military was prepared to broaden its operation against Hamas targets in Gaza.

If there will be a need, the military is prepared to expand the operation. We will continue to do everything to protect our citizens, he said.

All options are on the table. If necessary, the (Israeli military) is ready to initiate a ground operation in Gaza, it said.

The killing of Ahmad Jabari marked a dramatic resumption of Israel's policy of assassinating Palestinian militant leaders. He was the most senior Hamas official to be killed since the last war in Gaza ended in early 2009. He has long topped Israel's most-wanted list, blamed for a string of deadly attacks, including the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit in 2006.

The offensive followed a weekend exchange of rocket fire from Gaza on southern Israel and Israeli airstrikes. Seven Palestinians were killed and several Israelis were wounded.

In another development, with Syrian rebels controlling almost all the villages near the frontier with the Israel-held Golan Heights, the Israeli defense minister said Wednesday the situation brings the conflict dangerously close to the Jewish state and he raised the possibility of an armed clash.

During a tour of the Golan Heights, Defense Minister Ehud Barak gave a scathing assessment of Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces and said Israel will remain vigilant and alert.

Almost all of the villages, from the foot of this ridge to the very top, are already in the hands of the Syrian rebels, said Barak, who was accompanied by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The civil war in Syria has renewed tensions over the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau that Israel captured from Syria in 1967. Despite hostility between the two countries, Syria has been careful to keep the border quiet since the 1973 Mideast war.

But in recent days, Israeli troops have fired into Syria twice after apparently stray mortar shells flew into Israel-held territory. On Wednesday, an Associated Press journalist said an Israeli helicopter was patrolling the border area, and gunfire could be heard. The source of the gunfire was not immediately clear.

While it is widely believed that Assad does not want to pick a fight with Israel, there are fears the embattled Syrian leader may try to draw Israel into the fighting in a bout of desperation.

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