JERUSALEM (AP) – Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned on Thursday that militants in Hamas-ruled Gaza would pay a “heavy price” if they continued to target Israel, as the Israeli military wrapped up preparations for a possible large-scale assault on the coastal territory.
In Cairo, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak urged Israel to show restraint in his meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, an Israeli official said. Livni insisted that Israel would respond to protect its citizens.
On Wednesday, Palestinian militants pummeled southern Israel from Gaza with more than 80 rockets and mortars, causing no injuries but generating widespread panic. Cabinet ministers approved a broad invasion of Gaza, defense officials told The Associated Press.
“We will not accept this situation,” Barak warned on Thursday. “Whoever harms the citizens and soldiers of Israel will pay a heavy price.” He did not elaborate. But defense officials, speaking on condition on anonymity because they were not permitted to discuss the plans, said the Israeli operation would likely begin with surgical airstrikes 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, they added.
Twelve mortars were fired early Thursday, causing no injuries. One landed 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, the military said.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appealed to the people of Gaza on Thursday to turn against their Hamas rulers, saying they were responsible for the territory’s suffering.
Olmert told the Arabic-language Al-Arabiya TV that Israel would not hesitate to respond with force if attacks continued. “I am telling them now, it may be the last minute, I’m telling them stop it. We are stronger,” he said.
Israel has been reluctant to press ahead with a campaign 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 pressure militants to halt their fire.
Islamic Hamas militants seized control of Gaza in June 2007, after routing security forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.
A six month truce that began unraveling six weeks ago came to a formal end Friday, and rocket fire has been escalating.
Livni’s meetings with Egyptian leaders in Cairo originally were designed to try to renew the Egyptian-mediated truce. But after Wednesday’s bombardment, Livni, who is running for prime minister in Israel’s February elections, dismissed that option.
In his meeting with Livni, Mubarak urged Israel to show restraint in the face of the rocket barrages. Livni brushed that off. “Enough is enough,” she said afterward. “When there’s shooting, there’s a response. Any state would react that way.”
Also Thursday, Abbas visited Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank, for the first time since he took office in 2005. Israeli forces control a section in the middle of the city, because about 500 Jewish settlers live in several enclaves. Hebron is home to about 170,000 Palestinians.
Abbas demanded that the settlers get out. “Hebron is ours, and they have to leave if they want peace,” he said. Abbas also called on Israel to accept a 2002 Arab peace initiative, which offers peace between Israel and the Arab world in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights.
“Come to the ocean of peace that starts from Mauritania and ends in Indonesia,” Abbas said. Israel has said the initiative is a basis for negotiations but objects to some of its points.