- Associated Press - Thursday, April 7, 2011

JERUSALEM (AP) — An anti-tank missile fired from the Gaza Strip struck a school bus in southern Israel Thursday, wounding two people, including one critically, Israeli officials said, prompting the fiercest Israeli retaliation on the coastal territory since a broad military offensive two years ago.

Israel unleashed airstrikes and tank fire against Hamas targets across the border, killing four people and wounding 32 others, including four critically, said Palestinian health official Adham Abu Salmiya.

He said one of the dead was a 50-year-old civilian who was sitting outside his home when he was struck by tank fire. Two other men, in their 20s, were killed near the southern Gaza town of Rafah. It was unclear if they were civilians or militants. The fourth man was a Hamas policeman.

The sudden outbreak of violence illustrated the fragile situation along the Israel-Gaza border, where small bouts of fighting quickly can escalate into heavy-scale warfare.

After two years of relative calm, tensions have been rising between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza over the past few weeks. For Israel, Thursday’s attack was the most serious of this period.

But it also laid the groundwork for a major strategic breakthrough. The Israeli military activated for the first time a new cutting-edge missile-defense system called Iron Dome, which, officials said, scored a direct hit on an incoming Palestinian rocket.

The escalation has also spilled beyond Israel’s borders.

In the past month, Israel has intercepted a cargo ship that it said was carrying arms bound for Gaza, jailed an alleged Hamas rocket mastermind believed to have been captured in Ukraine, and been accused of carrying out a mysterious airstrike that killed two people in Sudan. Israel has not commented on this week’s airstrike, but officials have said they believe Sudan is a transit point for arms bound for Gaza.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the army to respond quickly to the attack on the school bus and said he held the Hamas militant group, which rules Gaza, responsible for the violence.

“We will respond until it will become clear that the Hamas fully understand that we cannot accept and we will not accept such events,” he said at a military base in southern Israel.

A small militant faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, claimed responsibility for attacking the bus.

Israeli defense officials said the incident marked a significant moment that would warrant a severe response, but there were no immediate indications that the violence would devolve into all-out war.

Israeli medical services said the bus was nearly empty after dropping off schoolchildren and was carrying only the driver and a lone passenger at the time of the attack. A 16-year-old boy with a serious head wound was evacuated from the scene and was undergoing surgery at a hospital. The driver was moderately wounded.

TV footage showed a yellow bus with its windows blown out and its rear charred.

Israeli President Shimon Peres condemned the attack from New York, where he was holding meetings at the United Nations.

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