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JERUSALEM – In what would be considered a major escalation, Hamas has claimed to WND it fired Katyusha rockets from the Gaza Strip aimed at a strategic Israeli city.

Katyusha rockets can travel further and carry much larger payloads than Qassam rockets, the brand usually launched by Gaza-based terror groups.

Qassams, about four feet long, usually can travel up to about five miles and are filled with explosives, fuel and shrapnel. Katyushas can travel more than 12 miles and are able to deliver a devastating amount of explosives. Hezbollah in 2006 hit northern Israel with more than 4,000 Katyushas, killing 43 Israeli civilians and injuring 4,262 more.

Hamas claimed it fired two Katyushas last night and another today aimed at Ashkelon, a port town about 10 miles from the Gaza Strip that is home to strategic fuel depots and electrical stations that supply power to most of southern Israel.

A spokeswoman for the Israel Defense Forces denied knowledge of any Katyushas fired at Ashkelon, stating only Qassams were launched from Gaza in recent days.

The IDF several times has denied various Palestinian rocket attacks, including a Katyusha that Hamas claimed it fired at the Israeli city of Sderot last year, only to later release limited information confirming the attacks.

In one of the largest single-day rocket salvoes, the IDF confirmed over 40 Qassam rockets and dozens of mortars were fired today at southern Israeli cities. Palestinian terrorists yesterday launched 25 rockets into Israel.

The attacks come in the wake of an Israeli anti-terror operation launched yesterday targeting Gaza’s rocket installations and killing 15 Palestinian militants the IDF said were involved in rocket firings.

Today, the IDF reportedly mistakenly hit a car of Palestinian civilians while targeting a nearby vehicle carrying terrorists who had just fired rockets at Israel. While Palestinian terror leaders vowed revenge, the IDF pointed out it put to use better targeting capabilities in recent years that has limited the number of civilians killed in air strikes from roughly 50 percent in 2002 to 2-3 percent last year.

Since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, thousands of rockets have slammed into nearby Jewish cities.

In line with agreements outlined at the U.S.-sponsored Annapolis summit in November, Israel is widely expected to evacuate large swaths of the West Bank and some sections of Jerusalem to create a Palestinian state this year.

President Bush visited the region last week to encourage the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to continue negotiations leading to a Palestinian state. According to diplomatic sources, Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams met today as the rockets were landing in Sderot and Ashkelon.

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