By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) - Israel and the Gaza Strip's Hamas rulers signaled on Sunday they were looking to end a flare-up in violence that began four days ago with a missile attack on an Israeli school bus and has claimed the lives of 19 Palestinians.
The fighting stoked fears of a larger escalation that could include an Israeli ground incursion into the coastal territory, reminiscent of a Gaza war that erupted in late 2008.
But Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Hamas had already been hit hard in the past few days and a ceasefire may be the way to go.
"If they stop firing on our communities, we will stop firing. If they stop firing in general, it will be quiet, it will be good," Barak said on Israel Radio.
Hamas said it, too, did not want a further escalation.
"If the Israeli aggression stopped, it would be natural for calm to be restored," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters. "Calm will be met with calm."
But an Israeli police spokesman said another eight rockets were fired at Israel on Sunday.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would raise the stakes if cross-border attacks continued.
"Our policy is clear, if the attacks continue on Israel's citizens and soldiers, the response will be much harsher," Netanyahu said at the start of a weekly cabinet meeting.
Violence erupted along the tense Israel-Gaza border on Thursday when Hamas gunmen fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli school bus, critically wounding a teenager and injuring its driver.
Israel then launched a series of air strikes at targets throughout the Gaza Strip, killing 19 Palestinian militants and civilians.
CALLS FOR CEASEFIRE
Gaza militant groups have fired at least 120 rockets and mortars at southern Israel in that time, including on Sunday, the Israeli army said, though a number of rockets were shot down mid-air by the newly deployed Iron Dome interceptor.
The United Nations and European Union had called for an end to the violence. One Palestinian source said Egypt was leading efforts to arrange a ceasefire.
Political analysts have explained the conflagration as an effort by Hamas to divert attention from demands, fueled by pro-democracy unrest in the Arab world, for an end to its split with the Western-backed Fatah movement in the West Bank.
Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip from forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a brief 2007 civil war.
Asked if Israel was considering a ground offensive similar to that two years ago into Gaza, Barak said all options were on the table, but it may not be necessary.
"If it will be necessary, we will act, but when it's not necessary, we don't need to," he said. "Restraint is also a form of strength."
Netanyahu said Israel had already dealt heavy blows to Hamas and other militant groups, hitting their members and resources.
Israel launched its military offensive into Gaza in December 2008-January 2009 in an effort to end the cross-border rocket fire. About 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed in the fighting.
(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch)