Israel 'poised for large-scale assault on Gaza' unless rocket attacks stop

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MILITANTS in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip were warned yesterday they would pay a "heavy price" if they continued to target Israel.

As the Israeli army reportedly pressed on with preparations for a possible large-scale assault on the coastal territory, Ehud Barak, the defence minister, and Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister, both insisted Israel would respond to protect its citizens.

The warning came after Palestinian militants hit southern Israel from Gaza with more than 80 rockets and mortars in recent days, causing no injuries but generating widespread panic.

Twelve mortars were fired early yesterday, landing at Israel's passenger crossing with Gaza as a group of Christians were going through, en route to the West Bank town of Bethlehem for Christmas Day celebrations.

"We will not accept this situation," Mr Barak said. "Whoever harms the citizens and soldiers of Israel will pay a heavy price."

According to unnamed Israeli defence officials, cabinet ministers have approved a broad invasion of Gaza. They said the operation was likely to begin with air strikes against rocket-launchers and continue with a land invasion. Harsh weather conditions are hampering visibility and complicating air force missions, so the operation won't be launched until the skies clear.

Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, appealed to the people of Gaza yesterday to turn their backs on their Hamas rulers, saying they were responsible for the territory's suffering.

He told the Arabic-language Al-Arabiya TV that Israel would not hesitate to respond with force if attacks continued. He said: "I am telling them now, it may be the last minute, I'm telling them stop it. We are stronger. I didn't come here to declare war, but Hamas must be stopped – that is the way it is going to be. I will not hesitate to use Israel's might to strike Hamas and (Islamic] jihad."

Israel has so far been reluctant to press ahead with a military campaign that is liable to exact heavy casualties on both sides. Past incursions have not halted the barrages. Israel left Gaza in 2005 after a 38-year occupation, but still controls its border crossings, blockaded for months in an effort to force militants to halt their fire.

Hamas seized control of Gaza in June 2007, after routing security forces loyal to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president.

A six-month truce that began unravelling six weeks ago came to a formal end on Friday, and attacks have been on the increase ever since, with more than 200 rockets and mortar shells fired on Israeli targets.

Mrs Livni met Egyptian leaders in Cairo on Wednesday in an attempt to patch up the Egyptian-mediated truce. However, in the wake of that day's bombardment, the foreign minister, who is running for prime minister in Israel's February elections, dismissed that option in favour of military tactics.

During his meeting with Mrs Livni, Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, urged Israel to show restraint in the face of the rocket barrages. But she brushed that off, saying: "Enough is enough. When there's shooting, there's a response. Any state would react that way."

In the West Bank city of Hebron, Mr Abbas called the situation "very difficult" and urged world powers to help avert a crisis that could result in Israel re-occupying Gaza. He also demanded Jewish settlers get out of Palestinian territory. "Hebron is ours, and they have to leave if they want peace," he said. He called on Israel to accept a 2002 initiative that offered peace between Israel and the Arab world in exchange for Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights.