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MID: Israel threatens major offensive against Gaza

By Ron Bousso
22 Dec 2008 12:45 AM

JERUSALEM, Dec 21 AFP - Israel threatened on Sunday to launch a major offensive against the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip as violence simmered around the impoverished territory days after the end of a truce with the Islamists.

Senior officials said after the weekly cabinet meeting that Israel is preparing a "response" to continuing rocket strikes from the besieged Palestinian coastal strip.

"We are preparing our response to the Hamas threat, with the decision yet to be taken on the timing and the scale," Amos Gilad, a senior adviser to Defence Secretary Ehud Barak, told public radio after ministers debated whether to launch a major ground incursion.

"We have to prepare for it carefully, like for a surgical operation," he said.

Earlier, a senior Israeli defence official told AFP that a major military confrontation in the territory is unavoidable after militants again targeted southern Israel with rockets.

"It is obvious where we are heading in Gaza. The situation is intolerable but clear. The army's considerations are the only thing that is deciding when events will unfold," the defence official said on condition of anonymity.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who leads the centrist Kadima party that heads the governing coalition, vowed to topple Hamas if she becomes prime minister after snap elections called for February.

"Israel must topple the Hamas rule in Gaza and a government under my command will do just that," Israeli media quoted her as telling a Kadima meeting.

"Israel must react when it is fired upon, must re-establish its force of dissuasion and stop the rockets," she said.

Tensions around Gaza have risen steadily since Friday, when Hamas said it would not renew a six-month truce with Israel.

Since then, Gaza militants have launched several dozen rockets, causing some damage and slightly wounding a handful of civilians, and Israel has retaliated with air strikes, killing one militant and wounding three other Palestinians.

Two Israeli ministers who have campaigned for weeks for the army to oust the Islamist masters of Gaza renewed their calls for tougher action.

"The second Israel comes under fire we should fire back intensively to reduce their capabilities," said Trade and Industry Minister Eli Yishai of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon insisted that it was now time for the Israeli army to end the control over Gaza that Hamas has enjoyed since ousting forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in June last year.

"What we want is to end the Hamas regime in Gaza," Ramon told public radio.

Observers say the government is wary of launching a major offensive ahead of the early parliamentary elections called for February for fear that it would not be able to score a decisive victory against the Islamists.

"The politicians aren't in any rush to reach election day with an incomplete military operation and only partial results hanging around their necks," wrote military analyst Alex Fishman in top-selling daily Yediot Aharonot.

"And worse than that, to be accused of having ordered a military operation just to improve their chances at the ballot box," he said.

Israel responded to violence that erupted around Gaza in early November by tightening its blockade of the territory and halting deliveries of humanitarian aid and other basic supplies.

The aid-dependent territory of about 1.5 million people has been subject to an Israeli blockade and repeated raids since 2006, when Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections and later joined in a deadly cross-border raid in which militants captured an Israeli soldier, who remains hostage to this day.