ISRAEL over the weekend continued to threaten a wide-scale military operation against the Gaza Strip after a series of air strikes which injured three Palestinian children and destroyed a number of industrial installations.

Israel’s deputy prime minister, Silvan Shalom, warned that the Israeli occupation military would soon launch a new offensive on the Gaza Strip unless the rocket fire from the Strip was halted.

‘If this rocket fire against Israel does not stop, it seems we will have to raise the level of our activity and step up our actions against Hamas,’ Shalom told public radio.

‘We won’t allow frightened children to again be raised in bomb shelters and so, in the end, it will force us to launch another military operation,’ said the Israeli deputy premier.

‘I hope we can avoid it, but it is one of the options we have, and if we don’t have a choice, we will use it in the near future,’ he said.

Three Palestinian children – aged two, four and 11 – were hit by flying glass in one of the six overnight raids, said Moawiya Hassanein, head of the Palestinian emergency services in Gaza. There were no other reports of casualties.

Hamas Prime Minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, reacted by blaming Israel for the increase in tensions.

‘My government is in talks with the Palestinian organisations to maintain a united stance with regards to the struggle against Israel,’ he said, and urged the international community to ‘intervene to put an end to the Israeli escalation,’ Haniya said in a statement.

Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, told ‘the Al Jazeera Channel that Hamas held the Israeli government led by Binyamin Netanyahu responsible for the ‘escalation’, but said the air raids had been expected because of threats by Ehud Barak, the defence minister, and other ministers.

He also blamed ‘the international community and the Arabs’ for failing ‘to do anything about the situation in Gaza.

‘The absence of the international community and the Arabs has allowed the Israelis to escalate the situation,’ he said.

Israeli aircraft bombed in Khan Younis, including a site housing Hamas’ Al-Aqsa TV network.

In Gaza City, warplanes targeted the Daloul cheese and dairy factory in the Sabra neighbourhood.

Houses were damaged nearby.

Aircraft fired two missiles at a police station in the Nusseirat refugee camp in addition to other sites in central Gaza, including a telecommunications company.

In accordance with an emergency plan developed for renewed Israeli attacks, ambulances were mobilised throughout Gaza in anticipation of casualties.

Palestinians across the coastal enclave said dozens of Israeli aircraft were spotted overhead.

An Israeli military spokesman said the warplanes targeted two weapons manufacturing facilities, one in the north, one in central Gaza, and two weapons storage facilities in the south.

Earlier, Israeli occupation officials reported that Palestinian fighters fired a homemade rocket into Israeli territory from Gaza. No one was injured.

Late Thursday, Israeli warplanes dropped leaflets on areas of Gaza bordering the occupied territories warning Palestinians not to approach the frontier.

‘The army holds Hamas as solely responsible for maintaining peace and quiet in the Gaza Strip,’ the occupation military said.

The rise in rocket fire comes amid mounting tensions in the region sparked by Arab fears that Israel has been moving to deepen its hold on annexed, mainly occupied east Jerusalem.

It has also been accompanied by fresh clashes along the Gaza border fence. On Tuesday, a Palestinian teenager was killed and several others were wounded as Israeli occupation troops fired on protesters near the border of the blockaded territory.

And two Israeli occupation soldiers, including an officer, were killed along with two Palestinian resistance fighters during fierce clashes last weekend when Israeli tanks carried out a brief incursion into Gaza.

Meanwhile, Britain expressed concern on Friday at Israeli air strikes against the Gaza Strip and the increase in rocket attacks from the enclave, and called for restraint on both sides.

‘We are concerned by today’s strikes and the escalation of violence in Gaza and southern Israel over the past week. We call on all parties to show restraint,’ a Foreign Office spokeswoman said.

‘We encourage Israelis and Palestinians to focus efforts on negotiation and to engage urgently in US-backed proximity talks.’

Former US government officials, some of whom are in contact with the current administration, have met in the past months with Hamas leaders, one of the officials who participated in the talks confirmed in a conversation with Ynet on Friday.

The official, Robert Malley, was a senior official in President Bill Clinton’s administration.

Malley added that Obama’s administration is aware of the meetings and even hinted that they are being updated regarding their content.

The administration itself did not deny that details of the meetings reach Washington, but emphasised that it did not sanction the meetings.

An initial report of the meetings appeared on Thursday in the Wall Street Journal.

Malley, who advised US President Barack Obama during his presidential campaign and maintains close ties with administration officials, confirmed to Ynet that he and retired US ambassador Thomas Pickering, together with senior European officials, met in Zurich last summer with senior Hamas officials, headed by Mahmoud al-Zahhar and Osama Hamdan.

Meetings apparently were also held in other European cities as well as in the Middle East. Malley and Pickering both acted under the auspices of a Brussels-based research institute.

The newspaper added that the meetings have raised hopes among the officials that their positions are being heard in Washington.

On the other hand, the administration emphasised that it does not sanction the talks and remains firm in its position that Hamas must recognise Israel and previous agreements and renounce violence and terrorism.

Despite this, the talks are seen on all sides as a sign that the Obama administration has softened the US stance towards Hamas, which is still designated ‘a terrorist organisation’ under US law.

According to the report in the newspaper, the American officials involved in the meetings are senior officials from the diplomatic corps.

Pickering is one of the most highly esteemed US diplomats.

Included in his diplomatic missions were postings as ambassador to the Zionist entity, Jordan, and the UN. During the Clinton administration, he served as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs.

Malley, too, has quite a bit of experience under his belt.

During his post as Special Assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli Affairs, Malley participated in talks between Israel, the Palestinians, and Syria in the 90s and was the only American alongside Clinton in talks with Assad Sr in Geneva in a last-ditch attempt to salvage peace talks between Israel and Syria.

Malley currently serves as Programme Director for Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group in Washington. Pickering also sits as a co-chair on the ICG board.

Malley told Ynet that the two work together in the international research institute and speak with officials throughout the world, and, as such, also meet with Hamas officials. He said that they spoke with Hamas regarding the situation in the Gaza Strip.

According to Malley, the group was clear with Hamas that they were not trying to deliver any messages and had no connection with the US government. As such, he said, the meetings do not constitute any form of indirect negotiations, and the officials do not pass messages between Hamas and the US government.

He said such meetings were also held under the Bush administration.

In response to the question whether the Obama administration is aware of the meetings or briefed on them after, he said that the group communicates to the government that a meeting was held and then passes on its impressions should anyone in the government express interest in hearing about what went on.

He reiterated that he acted similarly with the Bush administration, and noted that there is no change in the US policy toward Hamas.

Malley said he does not see any change within the Hamas ranks, but said that in his view, dialogue must always be pursued in order to understand what one is facing.

A Hamas official told the Wall Street Journal that his organisation is satisfied with the talks, saying it believes Hamas’ message is reaching its target and it knows it is meeting with people with ties to the White House.

A White House official responded to the newspaper’s question about whether the White House receives updates on the meetings, saying it would be negligent not to listen, especially if the meetings’ participants have such extensive experience and ‘know what they are talking about’.

However, it was said in response that the official policy of the administration has not changed and dialogue with Hamas will take place only after it recognises Israel and past agreements made with it and renounces terrorism.