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Gazans pay the price
of Israel's sanctions

Barak has vowed to continue the attacks and said that the military could soon launch a widespread military operation in Gaza, which came under the full control of Hamas after the group pushed out security forces loyal to the Palestinian president in June.

"The Israeli army will continue the extremely effective operations of its special forces in the Gaza Strip," he told army radio.

"Each day that passes brings us closer to a vigorous military operation."

Increasing pressure

Ehud Olmert, Israeli prime minister, has been under increasing domestic pressure to launch a major operation in the territory in response to frequent mortar and rocket attacks by Palestinian groups.

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"The question is not if we have to stop the [rocket] fire, but what kind of strike we should deal," he said in an interview with the Yediot Aharonot newspaper last week.

But there are concerns about the effect that a military offensive would have on the US-brokered peace process that was been initiated with the Palestinian government in the West Bank.

An offensive in Gaza would strain ties between Israel and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and damage the international and Arab support given to the process at the conference in Annapolis, Maryland.

"Gaza is the Achilles heel of the peace process," Mark Regev, Israeli government spokesman, told the AFP news agency.

In September, Olmert's cabinet declared Gaza a "hostile entity," and a month later began to reduce fuel supplies to the territory. It has also threatened to cut electricity supplies.

Israeli limits have forced all the petrol stations in the territory to close and fuel shortages have also effected the water supply.