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Israel, Hamas Trade Threats as Border Tensions Escalate

Palestinians carry the body of Mahmoud Al-Najar during his funeral in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, 26 Dec 2010. He was killed in Israeli strike.

Tensions are rising on Israel's border with the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

Israeli troops spotted several Palestinian militants whom the army said were trying to plant a roadside bomb on the Gaza border. Helicopters and an armored force opened fire on the gunmen, and Palestinian officials say two members of the Islamic Jihad group were killed.

The clash comes two years after the Gaza War and is the latest in a wave of tit-for-tat attacks over the past two weeks. Israel has launched air strikes and Palestinians have fired rockets and mortars across the border. The fighting ends a period of calm that has mostly prevailed in the area since the war ended in January of 2009.

The situation prompted tough talk at Israel's weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom issued a warning to the Islamic militant group Hamas that rules the Gaza Strip.

Shalom said Israel would not go back to the situation before the Gaza War, when Palestinian rockets were fired across the border nearly every day. He said Israel does not want another war, but if attacks continue, the army is prepared to respond with overwhelming force.

Cabinet Minister Yuval Steinitz went a step further.

"Israel will have no choice but to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza," Steinitz said. "At a certain point," he said, "I believe Hamas will force us to do it."

There were mutual threats from Hamas, a group that refuses to renounce violence or recognize Israel.

At a news conference of masked militants from the Hamas military wing in Gaza, spokesman Abu Obeida warned that any Israeli escalation would bring a painful military response. "Israel," he said, "is playing with fire."

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