Ehud Barak warns Hamas

The Israeli defence minister says militants in Hamas-ruled Gaza will pay a "heavy price" if they continue to target Israel.

Israelis comfort each other after a rocket, fired by Palestinian militants from within the Gaza Strip, hit their house in Tkuma, near the southern Israeli town of Netivot, on Dec 24 2008.
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JERUSALEM // The Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, warned today that militants in Hamas-ruled Gaza would pay a "heavy price" if they continued to target Israel, as the Israeli military finalised preparations for a possible large-scale assault on the coastal territory. A day earlier, militants had pummelled southern Israel with more than 80 rockets and mortars, causing no injuries but generating widespread panic. Israeli cabinet ministers huddled for hours discussing Israel's response to the barrage, and defence officials later said that ministers had approved a broad invasion of Gaza that would be launched after winter rains subsided.

"We will not accept this situation," Mr Barak said today. "Whoever harms the citizens and soldiers of Israel will pay a heavy price." Defence officials said the Israeli operation would likely begin with surgical airstrikes against rocket launchers and continue with a land incursion. Current weather conditions are hampering visibility and complicating air force missions, so the operation won't be launched until the skies clear, they added.

Israel has been reluctant to press ahead with a campaign likely to cause heavy casualties on both sides. Past incursions have not halted the barrages and officials fear anything short of a reoccupation of Gaza would fail to achieve the desired result of halting the rocket fire. Israel left Gaza in 2005 after a 38-year occupation, but still controls its border crossings. Hamas militants seized control of Gaza in June 2007. Yesterday's barrage came days after a six-month truce expired, and a day after Israeli troops killed three Palestinian militants along the Gaza-Israel border fence.

The military said four mortars were fired earlier today, causing no injuries. According to Israel's Army Radio, a fifth mortar landed at Israel's passenger crossing with Gaza as Gaza Christians were crossing, en route to the West Bank town of Bethlehem for Christmas Day celebrations. Israeli security officials had no immediate information on that report. The foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, was in Cairo today to update the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, on Israel's objectives. The meeting was originally planned to attempt to renew the Egyptian-mediated truce. But after yesterday's bombardment, Mr Livni - who is running for prime minister in Israel's February elections - dismissed that option.

"There is a point where every country and every leadership says - and this is what we say tonight as well - enough is enough," she told a campaign rally. The front pages of many Israeli newspapers today were splashed with photos of panicked children running for cover. TV broadcasts showed buildings with gaping holes and traumatised people being removed from their demolished homes. The military announced last night that it has hooked up an improved warning system against missiles - an indication of mounting concern that Gaza militants have expanded their range. Yesterday, Palestinian rockets reached as far as 20 kilometres from Gaza City.

* AP