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Israel's Gaza Border Tense as Violence Escalates

Tensions are high along Israel's border with Gaza following an escalation of violence. Palestinian militants in Gaza in the past few days have fired a number of rockets, mortars, and missiles at southern Israel. One town hit by the rockets is Ashdod, on Israel's Mediterranean coast.

A café not far from where at least two rockets hit over the last few days is a place of refuge for residents of this port city who drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and share stories about how life has changed here in the last few days.

Fabiana, an immigrant from France and mother of two, says her children have stayed home since schools closed when the barrage of rockets began.

She says a normal life is impossible because people live in fear. She says she tries to live normally, but cannot. She says schools have to close to protect children because no one knows the moment when a rocket is going to strike.

The shower of rockets came after a relative lull that followed Israel's attack on Gaza militants more than two years ago. There have been sporadic rocket attacks in the past year, but militants stepped them up in recent days in response to an Israeli assault that killed civilians, including children.

Israel said its targets were the militants who it says launched rocket attacks first.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on a visit to the region, met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders Friday. He affirmed Israel's right to defend itself and also urged both sides to return to negotiations to establish a Palestinian state.

"There is a need and an opportunity for bold action to move toward a two-state solution. And as the parties move forward, the United States stands ready to support them in any way they can," Gates said.

Gates went to the West Bank and met with moderate Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, who said he wants a Palestinian state in place and an end to the Israeli occupation by September.

Israel is vowing a strong response to a string of attacks that have included the murder of several members of a Jewish family on a West Bank settlement earlier this month, and a bombing in Jerusalem on Wednesday that killed one person.

Prior to meeting with Secretary Gates, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a warning Friday for Hamas, the militant Islamist group that controls Gaza.

He said Israel is prepared to act with great force in order to stop the attacks from Gaza.

His warning resonates with Fabiana and other residents of Ashdod.

She says Israelis cannot sit and do nothing. She says the attacks are coming again, and it is obvious to her that the army and the government must do something in response.

There are indications that neither side is eager to be drawn into another war in Gaza. Hamas leaders on Friday indicated they want to maintain an informal cease-ire. Hamas' foreign minister says the group has called on militants not to give Israel an excuse to attack.