JERUSALEM – A Hamas rocket fired yesterday at a high school in a southern Israeli town is viewed by top military echelon here as an “act of war” that will be met with an escalated operation in the Gaza Strip, a senior defense official told WorldNetDaily today.

The rocket was the first ever to land in central Ashkelon, a town of 120,000 residents that is home to Israel’s main electric supply station and critical gas and oil pipelines. The rocket, an updated version of the Palestinian Qassam missile, was launched by militants only a fifth of a mile from Israeli ground troop concentrations stationed in Gaza.

Critics of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s evacuation last summer of the Gaza Strip had warned the retreat eventually would place Ashkelon under Palestinian rocket fire. Sharon then had stated rockets fired at the strategic town would result in an “unprecedented Israeli military response.”

Terrorist leaders in Gaza told WND today their groups have the ability to regularly bombard Ashkelon. They warned longer-range Qassam missiles will be fired at Israeli towns near Gaza in the near future.

The statements follow a WorldNetDaily exclusive interview in which Abu Abdullah, a leader of Hamas’ so-called military wing, stated his group is developing electronically guided missiles.

The Qassam rocket yesterday hit Ashkelon’s Ronson High School at about 7 p.m. Jerusalem time, causing damage but no casualties even though many parents and children were in the vicinity during the attack to register for the coming school year.

Hamas took credit for the attack.

The rocket bombardment was the farthest a Palestinian projectile had ever traveled – about eight miles. Regular Qassam rockets have a range of about three to five miles.

Israeli security officials said the Qassam used in yesterday’s attack was an updated version, possessing two engines instead of one.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was attending an American Independence Day party at the home of the U.S. ambassador during the attack, said the rocket fired at Ashkelon took the Palestinian terror war to a new level.

“This attack, this criminal attempt that was aimed at harming Israeli civilians living inside Israel’s borders, will have unparalleled and far-reaching consequences,” Olmert said. “And the Hamas organization will be the first to feel them.”

Today Olmert’s security cabinet approved an Israeli Defense Forces proposal to expand military operations in the Gaza Strip in response to the Qassam attack.

IDF troops entered southern and northern Gaza following a Hamas raid June 25 against Israel’s Kerem Shalom military station and the kidnapping of French-Israeli citizen Gilad Shalit.

“There will be steps taken and they will be very serious,” said Cabinet Minister Isaac Herzog, who refused to elaborate on the military’s plans. “There is a very broad operation here. It will continue.”

Israel’s objectives in the operation were defined during the meeting as targeting Hamas in Gaza and in Judea and Samaria – in particular, hitting institutions and infrastructure suspected of facilitating terrorism and restricting the movements of terrorists by tightening the division of the Gaza Strip by IDF ground forces.

An IDF proposal obtained last night by WND included a massive ground assault and anti-terror operation in Beit Hanoun, a northern Gaza town known to be a major terrorist staging grounds. The attack would be similar to Israel’s Defensive Shield operation in 2002 in which the terror infrastructure of northern Samaria was badly damaged.

It was unclear if the IDF’s Beit Hanoun operation was approved by the security cabinet today.

Meanwhile a senior leader of Hamas’ “military wing” told WND the group has succeeded in developing a large quantity of Qassam missiles that can travel further distances.

The leader, who spoke on condition his name be withheld, said the group has the ability to regularly bombard Ashkelon and other nearby towns.

He warned more longer-range missiles will be fired “in the coming days.”

New missiles would threaten most Israelis

Abu Abdullah, a senior leader of Hamas’ so-called military wing last month told WND in an interview his group is developing a new, electronically guided missile that will place most major Israeli population centers within firing range.

“In the last months we accelerated the improvement operations of our missile production,” Abdullah said. “Thanks to Allah we have already improved missiles and in the future we will have the fourth model of our Qassam missiles, which will be electronically guided missiles and very accurate. Our Mujahadeen fighters are receiving a high level of training on how to use the new Qassams and how to maximize their accuracy. With the help of Allah we will succeed.”

Abdullah claimed the new missiles will be able to reach “every target in 1948 occupied Palestine (Israel) and that from Gaza we will be able to hit the center of Israel even if the transfer of these missiles to the West Bank (which runs alongside major Israeli cities) is for some reason interrupted.”

Palestinian groups, until now, generally have fired three versions of Qassams, improvised steel rockets filled with explosives and fuel. Until yesterday, the furthest a Qassam had traveled was about five miles. Israel has noted regular improvements in Qassams, although it has not released information about Palestinian groups developing missiles with guidance systems.

A senior Palestinian intelligence officer told WND there is evidence groups in Gaza are developing guided missiles.

Israeli defense officials have warned some advanced rockets, including antiaircraft missiles, have been smuggled into the Gaza Strip.

Abdullah claimed Israel has been deliberately minimizing his group’s rocket capabilities.

“It is normal that the Israelis will underestimate the capabilities of Palestinian resistance such as not admitting we are working on these new missiles,” he said. “The people who made the (Gaza) withdrawal don’t want to talk now about the so-called risks.”

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