November 13, 2009 - 1:00am

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi said Friday that the army would not hesitate to respond if Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip continued to fire rockets at Israel.

"We are prepared to contend with the whole arc of threats," Ashkenazi told students during a visit to a Be'er Sheva high school, citing both the local defense situation as well as Iran's contentious nuclear program.

Although the Hamas rulers in Gaza have of late been "restraining themselves and others," said Ashkenazi, "we must not fool ourselves. If necessary, we will operate again in the Gaza Strip to stop the rocket fire."

In reference to the Goldstone Commission's damning report on Israel's conduct during the war on the Gaza Strip earlier this year, Ashkenazi emphasized that the IDF had the responsibility to defend itself at all costs.

"We must defend ourselves when we see a militant cell rigging Grad rockets in the direction of Be'er Sheva, and that is exactly what we did [during the January war]," the IDF chief said.

Reiterating his remarks to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee earlier this week, Ashkenazi said that the IDF was open to investigating all complaints of misconduct during the war.

"The Goldstone report deserves a response," he added. "We must explain the justice of that war and to explain that there is the possibility that we will be forced to act again."

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, meanwhile, has warned that Israel is planning another offensive on the Gaza Strip, Iran's Press TV reported on Friday. The IDF chief did not respond directly to that report during his visit to the Be'er Sheva school.

According to Haniyeh, it is Israel and not Hamas that is intent on keeping the conflict going between the two sides.

Hamas is "not looking for more violence," Haniyeh told a group of Red Cross delegates visiting the Gaza Strip earlier this week.

The Hamas leader - who took over leadership of Gaza after a bloody 2007 coup deposed the Palestinian Authority in the coastal territory - told the delegates that he hoped his prediction of war would not come into fruition.

Haniyeh said that should such an Israeli offensive occur, Hamas would be prepared to retaliate.

"Our people will not surrender; they will fight back," Haniyah's office said, in a statement.

He also said he hoped that "the world will stop Israel from killing more children," according to the Iranian network.

Meanwhile, Israel Defense Forces soldiers on Friday opened fire on a group of Palestinians apparently rigging explosives at the Gaza Strip border.

One of the Palestinians was killed in the incident. None of the soldiers was hurt.


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