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Israel ready to 'expand' Gaza operation

Israel has said it is ready to "significantly expand" its assault on Gaza. Its warning came as the Jewish state and Gaza militants exchanged air fire for a fifth day, and world diplomatic figures called for a truce.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that his country was prepared to "significantly expand" its military strikes on the Gaza Strip as the conflagation entered its fifth consecutive day.

"We are extracting a heavy price from Hamas and the terror organisations," Netanyahu claimed at the start of a meeting of his cabinet Sunday.

"The army is prepared to significantly expand the operation."

Referring to consultations with world leaders, Netanyahu said "we appreciate their understanding of Israel's right to self defence."

Netanyahu’s remarks came as thousands of Israeli troops gathered along the border with Gaza, prompting speculation that Israel was preparing to launch a ground operation. Since Wednesday, the conflict has mainly comprised Israeli air strikes and rocket firings by Gaza militants.

Israel's Channel 2 television said the cabinet had approved the call-up of as many as 75,000 army reservists. The military also announced the closure of highways leading to Gaza, promoting further speculation that Israel might invade the enclave of 1.7 million Palestinians, as it did around New Year 2009.

Air strikes continue

Meanwhile, Gaza and Israel continued to exchange air fire on Sunday. "Two rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome system," police spokesman Luba Samri told AFP, in reference to reports of rockets being aimed at Tel Aviv.

Samri's comments came after sirens were heard in the Israel's commercial hub, prompting residents to again run for shelter.

Journalists wounded

In Gaza, one Israeli air strike targeted a building in Gaza City that houses the offices of local media. At least three journalists from the Palestinian al Quds television station were injured.

Nearly 50 Palestinians have been killed so far in the violence, including women and children. Israel has launched approximately 1,000 air strikes into Gaza.

Three Israeli civilians were killed by rocket fire on Thursday. Dozens more have been injured since fighting began, with more than 500 rockets from Gaza hitting Israel.

Seeking an end to violence

Sunday's continued violence follows a meeting the previous day in Cairo, where Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and his security deputies looked to broker a truce with Hamas leaders.

Morsi said that "there are some indications that there is a possibility of a ceasefire soon, but we do not yet have firm guarantees."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed remarks made by US President Barack Obama on Friday affirming support of the air campaign. Both leaders have maintained that Israel must protect its own population.

Speaking to Netanyahu by phone, Merkel also stressed the importance of reaching a peace deal.

"A complete cease-fire must be agreed as soon as possible to avoid further bloodshed," she said, according to German government spokesman Georg Streiter.

Like Obama, Merkel also said she supports Egypt's efforts to diffuse the situation.

During another telephone conference on Saturday, Merkel urged Egypt's President Morsi to "keep exercising his important role as a mediator and urge the Palestinian groups to cease their attacks against Israel."

dr,sej/ipj (Reuters, dpa, AFP)