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Israeli aircraft strike Gaza sites

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli aircraft struck three times in Gaza in the early hours of Tuesday morning, hitting a weapons storage facility and two rocket launching sites used by militants, the military said in a statement.

As a growing crisis in the Gaza Strip moved into a fifth day, the Israeli army said it had scored direct hits on the targets. No casualties were reported in the strikes which caused loud explosions.

Israel warned that it would hit hard at Palestinian militants who launch rockets into the Jewish state.

The militants indicated late on Monday that they were ready for a truce but there was no immediate response from Israel.

Leaders of Hamas, the Islamist faction that controls Gaza, met with Islamic Jihad and other groups and said they would respond according to the way Israel acted - a formulation used in previous flare-ups to offer a ceasefire.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to convene a forum of nine senior ministers later on Tuesday to decide a course of action. Israel Radio said Netanyahu had met Defence Minister Ehud Barak and military chief Lieutenant General Benny Gantz on Monday night to present possible attack scenarios.

Tensions rose sharply on Saturday when four Israeli soldiers patrolling the Israel-Gaza border were wounded. Israel responded with tank fire and air strikes and killed six Palestinians, including four civilians, and at least 40 have been wounded.

The Israeli military said Palestinians had fired 12 rockets on Monday, and some 119 had been launched since Saturday.

A Palestinian official, who declined to be named, said Egypt had been trying to broker a ceasefire and although no formal truce was in place, Hamas understood the need for calm.

Monday's rocket launches were claimed by smaller groups, including a radical Salafi organization that rejects Hamas's authority.

Israel has shown little appetite for a new Gaza war, which could strain relations with the new Islamist-rooted government in neighboring Egypt. The countries made peace in 1979.

But Netanyahu may be reluctant to seem weak ahead of a January 22 election that opinion polls currently predict he will win.

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza. Writing by Ori Lewis; editing by Christopher Wilson)

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