GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli aircraft struck the southern Gaza Strip targeting rocket-launching militants, the military said Monday, and Palestinian officials reported that two men were found dead in the area.
The strike came after two days of rocket attacks and airstrikes that risked escalating into a more serious cycle of violence, although Israel's defense minister downplayed the chances that a large-scale ground offensive into Gaza would be launched.
The Israeli military said its aircraft attacked a squad that had just fired a rocket into Israel. The military said it had "confirmed a hit" but provided no further details.
Palestinian security officials said two bodies were discovered around dawn wearing the uniform of al-Ahrar, or "The Free People", a little-known group with ties to Gaza's militant Hamas rulers that previously had no history of violence against Israel.
The men were unarmed and no rocket launchers were found in the area, the officials said.
They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Deadly violence between Israel and Gaza militants flared over the weekend. In earlier exchanges of rockets and airstrikes, 10 militants and an Israeli civilian were killed. Despite the worst bloodshed in months, both sides have indicated they were interested in restoring calm.
Israeli defense officials are eager to contain the attacks on southern Israel, where more than 1 million people live within the range of Gaza militants' rockets.
Israeli defense officials have confirmed that contingency plans have been drawn up for a broad invasion of Gaza to topple Hamas, which would require Israel to reoccupy the territory. But they said this is a worst-case scenario among many options, would take several months and be extremely complicated, and the preference is to restore the calm that has largely prevailed since 2009.
Israel captured Gaza in the 1967 Mideast war, but withdrew all troops and settlers from the area in 2005.
"I don't rule out that at some point we might find ourselves required to embark upon a full-fledged operation (in Gaza)," Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Army Radio. "(But) I am not one of those people who miss returning to Gaza."
Most of the violence this weekend has been between Israel and Islamic Jihad, an Iranian-backed group that is considered even more extreme than Hamas. On Sunday, Islamic Jihad said it was prepared to halt the violence provided Israel would do so, too.
While acknowledging that Hamas militants were not directly responsible for the recent rocket fire, Israel says it holds the group accountable for attacks from Gaza. And there is little doubt that Hamas' control — when it wants to exercise it — is strong.
Hamas, which overran Gaza in June 2007, lost hundreds of men in a fierce Israeli war against rocket squads three years ago and has largely maintained calm since then.
The group is also waiting for Israel to free more than 500 Palestinian prisoners in a second phase of a swap for a long-held Israeli soldier. A protracted cycle of new violence could endanger that release, which was a major political coup for Hamas among the Palestinian people.
Separately Monday, Israeli police said vandals attacked a restaurant owned by Israeli Arabs in central Israel. Graffiti suggested it was the work of Jewish extremists.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld says the words "Kahane was right" and "price tag" were spray-painted on the restaurant's walls in the Jaffa section of Tel Aviv.
Meir Kahane was a U.S.-born rabbi who advocated expelling Palestinians from Israel and the West Bank. "Price tag" refers to the practice of attacking Palestinians and their property in retaliation for Israeli government operations against settlers.
Violence against Palestinians has spiked in recent months, with hundreds of olive trees uprooted, mosques attacked and Arab cemeteries vandalized.
Rosenfeld said no arrests had been made in Monday's incident.