At least 60 Palestinians have been killed in escalating Israeli raids in the Gaza Strip.  Palestinian hospital officials say a number of the Palestinians killed were civilians.  The others are believed to be Palestinian militants.  The attacks, which have brought sharp condemnation from Palestinian officials, are casting a shadow over peace efforts. Robert Berger reports from the VOA bureau in Jerusalem.

There was panic in Gaza as Israeli tanks and aircraft launched attacks in the northern part of the Strip, retaliating for Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel. The raids sparked heavy clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants around the Gaza towns of Beit Hanoun and Jabalya, areas used to fire rockets across the border. Palestinian officials said it was the deepest Israeli incursion in several months.

In response, militants fired more Iranian-made Grad rockets into Ashkelon, extending the front line to an Israeli city with a population of more than a 100,000. Until now, most Palestinian rocket fire was directed at the smaller town of Sderot.

Israel says the Islamic militant group Hamas, which rules Gaza, crossed a red line by targeting Ashkelon.  Israeli analyst Dan Scheuftan says it is time to take off the gloves in dealing with Hamas.

"Anybody in certain areas where rockets are being used against Israel, who can be suspected of anyhow being involved in it, will be killed; and if some innocent people will be killed, well this is what happens in time of war. On our side, only innocent people are being killed," he said.

Hamas, which refuses to renounce violence or recognize Israel, seized power in Gaza last June, routing the Fatah forces of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Despite his differences with Hamas, Mr. Abbas's government in the West Bank harshly condemned the Israeli raids in Gaza and threatened to suspend peace talks with Israel.  Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki spoke through an interpreter at a news conference in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

"These crimes are nothing short of genocide aiming at exterminating the heroic Palestinians," he said.  "These crimes are not short of war crimes and crimes against humanity."

Israel is threatening to launch an all-out air and ground assault on Gaza if the rocket attacks continue.

The violence could derail the effort to forge a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians by the end of the year. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to visit the region next week to try and move the process forward.

While condemning the rocket attacks, she has urged Israel to exercise restraint.