Gaza militants fired off another barrage of mortars and rockets against Israel on Thursday, an Israeli military spokesman said, as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert issued a “last-minute” appeal to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to reject their Hamas rulers and stop rocket fire at Israel.
Olmert said he would not hesitate to use force if necessary. Israeli political sources said Olmert’s security Cabinet had approved a “staged” military escalation, beginning with air strikes against a wider range of Hamas targets.
A large-scale operation has yet to be authorized but could get a green light depending on Hamas’ response, the sources said.
In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Israel would “pay the price” for any attack.
Olmert told Al Arabiya television, an Arab broadcaster widely watched in Gaza: “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. How? I will not go into details now,” according to a statement issued by his office.
Olmert has resisted calls within Israel for a major military operation against Hamas, but rocket and mortar fire from the coastal enclave since a six-month truce brokered by Egypt expired last week has increased pressure on him to act.
In the Al Arabiya interview, Olmert issued what amounted to a public call to Gazans to overthrow their Hamas leaders to prevent an escalation with Israel.
“I’m telling them now. It may be the last minute. I’m telling them. Stop it. We are stronger. There will be more blood there. Who wants it? We don’t want it,” Olmert said.
Olmert questioned whether Hamas’ stance was consistent with Islam. “Is the spirit of Islam to kill innocent children, to fire rockets at kindergartens and civilians? I don’t think that is the spirit of Islam,” Olmert said.
Despite the fresh attacks, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak had decided to open the crossings between Israel and the Gaza Strip yesterday “to allow the transfer to Gaza of vital humanitarian aide,” his office said late on Thursday.
Israeli public television said the minister’s decision followed intense international pressure on Israel to ease its blockade of the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli military spokesman said that armed Palestinians had during the course of Thursday fired from Gaza “at least 17 mortar rounds and three rockets which hit southern Israel.”
One rocket fell in an industrial zone at the southern town of Ashkelon, the spokesman said, adding that none of the projectiles caused casualties.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, during a visit to Cairo on Thursday, vowed to strike back at the Hamas rulers of Gaza.
“Enough is enough. The situation is going to change,” Livni said after meeting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to discuss the deteriorating situation in the Gaza Strip since a truce expired six days ago.
“Unfortunately there is one address to the situation of the people in the Gaza Strip, this is Hamas, Hamas controls them, Hamas decided to target Israel, this is something that has to be stopped and this is what we’re going to do,” she said in English.
“Yesterday’s escalation was unbearable,” Livni said after Gaza militants on Wednesday hit Israel with their biggest rocket barrage in six months to avenge the killing of three fighters from the Islamist movement.