GAZA, Sep 27 (Reuters) Israel killed 10 Palestinians in military operations in the Gaza Strip and threatened a major ground sweep of the Hamas-run territory to stem rocket fire.
Following a surge in the cross-border salvoes, Israeli troops and tanks rolled into the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, touching off clashes with local gunmen yesterday.
Israeli shelling killed a gunman from the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) militant group along with three bystanders, witnesses said. An air strike killed a Hamas militant.
Earlier, Israel's air force attacked a car in nearby Gaza City, killing its five occupants. They were identified as members of the Army of Islam militant group.
At least 22 Palestinians were also wounded in the fighting, among the fiercest in Gaza since Hamas Islamists seized control of it in June.
Israel, which last week declared Gaza an ''enemy entity'' because of the continued short-range rocket fire, signalled that it could soon order invasions of areas used for the launches.
''We are getting closer to carrying out a widespread operation in Gaza which, for many reasons, has not taken place in the past weeks,'' Defence Minister Ehud Barak told Israel's Army Radio.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has come under pressure from residents of the Israeli town of Sderot, which was targeted by rockets, and rightist politicians to crack down on Gaza, some of them arguing that Hamas, which rejects the Jewish state's right to exist, is amassing arms in the territory.
Several Israeli cabinet ministers have cautioned that such a campaign could lead to heavy casualties among Israeli forces and Palestinians in the coastal territory of 1.5 million people.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh denounced yesterday ''a new wave of Israeli aggression''. Government spokesman David Baker said Israel would continue to take ''pre-emptive measures'' to prevent rocket attacks or other assaults on its citizens.
PEACE CONFERENCE LOOMS An Israeli military push into the Gaza Strip in the coming weeks could complicate plans for a US-sponsored Middle East peace conference expected in November in the Washington area.
''It must be clear that an operation of this type is not simple, not in terms of the forces and the amount of time which we will have to stay there or in terms of the operational challenges which the troops will have to meet,'' Barak said.
In Beit Hanoun, witnesses said Israeli shells struck a house killing a PRC gunman and three civilians. A Israeli army spokeswoman said soldiers fired at a group of Palestinians who were planning to attack them with rocket-propelled grenades.
Asked about the air strike in Gaza City, a military spokeswoman said it targeted an Army of Islam cell that was transporting rockets. In Beit Hanoun, she said, the air force struck militants spotted near an area used to launch rockets.
Israeli forces also shelled the Beit Hanoun electricity transformer, causing a power blackout, residents said. The army said it was not aware of the blast.
Gazan militants fired at least 12 rockets into Israel yesterday. Such salvoes rarely cause deaths but have spread panic in Israeli border towns, with government officials warning that their range could be expanded to take in more communities.
After branding Gaza an ''enemy entity'', Israel said it would reduce fuel and power supplies to the territory.
It has yet to take such actions, which UN officials and human rights groups have said would violate international law pertaining to occupied territories.
Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip in 2005 after 38 years of occupation. Palestinians say the territory is still effectively under occupation because Israel controls its borders, waters and air space. Israel disputes this.
Reuters KK VP0655