"We could annihilate Bait Hanun and the rest of Gaza in a few hours. We certainly have the power to do so," Ze'ev Boim, Israel's deputy defence minister, told Gali Tzhal, the Israeli army radio.

Israel has one of the strongest armies in the world and is known to possess a huge stockpile of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons along with their delivery systems.

Other government officials have made similar belligerent remarks following Palestinian resistance attacks on an Israeli army outpost outside Khan Yunis in southern Gaza and a Jewish colony located in eastern Gaza.

Three Israelis were killed in the two attacks, which apparently were carried out in retaliation against the killing by the Israeli army of 13 Palestinian resistance figures earlier this week.

Building attacked

Meanwhile, the Israeli army continued to amass troops, tanks and armoured-personnel carriers outside Palestinian population centres and refugee camps in northern Gaza, apparently in preparation for a fresh incursion against suspected resistance groups.

Early on Tuesday morning, Israeli Apache helicopter gunships fired several rockets at a multi-storey building in central Gaza.

The rocket salvo on a Gaza colony
struck a big psychological blow

The Israeli army said the building, which houses several media offices, including Aljazeera TV, was "a Hamas building".

The building's owners and occupants denied the accusation.

"This is an office building. It has nothing whatsoever to do with Hamas or any resistance group," said Salah al-Naami, who goes to work in a nearby building.

Palestinian sources said the attack was perhaps an attempt to kill an Islamic-leaning journalist, Mustafa al-Sawwaf, who works for the BBC and Islam-Online electronic newspaper and whose office is located in the now-damaged building.

The Israeli army refused to say if that indeed was the reason for the rocket attack.

Economy crippled

In response to Monday's Hamas rocket salvo, Israeli warplanes attacked and destroyed another metal workshop in central Gaza, claiming the facility was being used by resistance groups to manufacture missiles.

The owners insisted the foundry was a strictly family business and was never involved in any illegal activity.

In another incident, two eight-storey buildings in Khan Yunis were destroyed by the occupation army on Tuesday night in retaliation for the death of an Israeli soldier on Sunday.

Since the outbreak of Al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000, the Israeli army has destroyed dozens of foundries in the Gaza Strip, inflicting irreparable damage on an already crippled local economy.

"I don't have an army.
I can't enforce UN resolutions as far as Israel is concerned. We issue condemnatory statements, but we
can't go much farther beyond that"

Kofi Annan,
UN Secretary General

During the same period, Israel has destroyed more than 7000 concrete structures, including numerous multistorey buildings and the Gaza airport and sea port, in addition to thousands of residential homes.

Earlier this week UN Secretary General Kofi Annan expressed deep frustration and helplessness over the continuing violence and destruction.

He told the London-based al-Hayat newspaper that the UN could do virtually nothing to help the Palestinians.

"I don't have an army. I can't enforce UN resolutions as far as Israel is concerned. We issue condemnatory statements, but we can't go much farther beyond that."