updated 1/13/2011 12:48:57 PM ET 2011-01-13T17:48:57

Gaza's Hamas rulers deployed forces near the Israeli border Thursday to try to prevent smaller militant groups from firing rockets, a sign that the movement fears Israeli retaliation for the escalating barrages from the Palestinian territory.

Hamas leaders called together representatives of the militant groups and told them to hold their fire, according to Hamas spokesman Taher Nunu, before Hamas sent its forces to the border area.

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At least 25 rockets and mortar shells have exploded in Israel's south this month, according to the military. Several Israelis have been wounded, one seriously. Israel has been hitting back for each salvo with airstrikes aimed at weapons storage facilities and factories, as well as smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.

The Islamic militant group appears concerned about triggering another large-scale Israeli military campaign similar to a three-week operation two years ago.

An unwritten cease-fire has been in effect since then, but the frequency of rocket attacks has been creeping upward in recent weeks.

Israel holds Hamas responsible for all violence originating in Gaza, though Hamas blames smaller groups for the recent rocket fire. Those groups, like Islamic Jihad and Popular Resistance Committees, have varying degrees of allegiance to Hamas.

This week, an Israeli airstrike killed an Islamic Jihad militant on a motorcycle, a rare targeted killing.

Hamas assembled the militant groups after Egypt warned the militant Islamic rulers of Gaza that Israel was serious about bringing the rocket fire to an end, according to a participant, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed.

He quoted Hamas strongman Mahmoud Zahar as warning them that they were "playing with fire."

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh told the groups that their role is to protect the people of Gaza from another attack by Israel, Nunu said.

Hours later, dozens of Hamas police were seen at checkpoints and police posts that had been abandoned earlier for fear of Israeli attacks, as they moved to enforce the cease-fire and stop the rocket fire.

The checkpoints were on roads leading to the Israeli border, including access roads to agricultural areas that are often used by Gaza militants to fire rockets.

Before nightfall, however, an Associated Press photographer said no Hamas forces were to be seen in the area.

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Israeli leaders have insisted that they will not tolerate attacks from Gaza, but there was no sign of a military buildup on the border that would signal that another invasion is imminent.

Two years ago Israel sent ground forces into Gaza and blasted targets from the air in an attempt to weaken Hamas and stop the rocket fire, which traumatized tens of thousands of Israelis in the border area, forcing them into bomb shelters and protected spaces several times a day.

About 1,400 Palestinians, including many civilians, were killed in the conflict, and parts of Gaza were heavily damaged. Israel achieved its goal of significantly reducing the rocket salvos, but it paid a stiff price in world condemnation, including a U.N. report that accused Israel, as well as Hamas, of war crimes. Israel has said it was acting in justified self-defense.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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