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Violence takes Gaza to the brink

A series of deadly attacks this week could derail the fragile truce agreement between rival Palestinian factions and threatens to draw Israeli forces back in.

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As deadly clashes between rival factions Fatah and Hamas escalated for a fourth day on Wednesday, Palestinians in Gaza seemed to have returned to the brink of all-out internecine war that threatens to draw Israeli forces back into the troubled coastal strip of land.

In response to a series of bold Hamas offensives that killed more than 13 people, President Mahmoud Abbas was reportedly mulling declaring a state of emergency in the West Bank and Gaza.

With Gaza largely shut down except for the fighting, Islamic militants fired missiles at the home of a top Fatah security chief, killing several bodyguards.

The latest fighting between the rival militias – so far about three dozen Palestinians have been killed this week – has wrecked a Hamas-Fatah truce reached in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in February and exposed the parties' "unity" government as ineffectual, say analysts.

"The government is completely toothless," says Ghassan Khatib, a former cabinet minister under Mr. Abbas. "This is a round that will take some time, probably a couple of weeks. It will continue until Gaza will be in a different political context."

Meanwhile, in the first air strike after months of an informal cease-fire, an Israeli helicopter shot missiles at a Hamas training base in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, killing at least four. The strike was retaliation for rocket salvos that left several injured and many houses damaged in the southern Israel town of Sderot.

Israel mulls sending in troops

With Sderot residents in bomb shelters and demanding to be evacuated, the pressure has been ratcheted up on the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to order a broad offensive in Gaza – a move that many in Israel see as inevitable.

"Israel won't tolerate attacks on its citizens," said Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz in a statement. "Israel will not be a party to an internal Palestinian power struggle. We will respond visibly."

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