Israel's deputy defense minister warned on Friday of a disaster in the Gaza Strip after Israel activated an air raid system to protect a major city from increasingly threatening Palestinian rocket barrages.
As Israeli troops, tanks and aircraft went after Palestinian rocket operations, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai told Army Radio that Israel had "no other choice" but to launch a massive military operation in Gaza.
"As the rocket fire grows, and the range increases ... they are bringing upon themselves a greater 'shoah' because we will use all our strength in every way we deem appropriate, whether in airstrikes or on the ground," Vilnai told Army Radio.
The Hebrew word "shoah" is most often associated with the Holocaust but Israelis use it to describe all sorts of disasters. A spokesman for Vilnai, Eitan Ginzburg, said the deputy defense minister never intended it as a reference to the Holocaust but used the word "shoah" to denote a disaster.
Israel evacuated its troops and settlers from Gaza in late 2005, but the rocket fire has persisted and this week became more ominous as Iranian-made rockets slammed into a major city.
Communities right over the Gaza border have taken the overwhelming brunt of the rocket attacks from Gaza, but militants firing longer-range Iranian rockets struck hit the town of Ashkelon several times on Thursday. One sliced through the roof of an apartment building and three floors below, and another landed near a school, wounding a 17-year-old girl.
Ashkelon, a beach town 11 miles north of Gaza, had been sporadically targeted in the past but never suffered direct hits or significant damage. Aside from its relatively large population of 120,000, the city is also home to a hospital, a power station, hotels and the European force that used to monitor a major Gaza-Israel crossing before Islamic Hamas militants violently seized control of Gaza in June.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Friday that the assaults on Ashkelon "demand an Israeli retaliation." Barak, who has warned repeatedly of a large-scale operation in Gaza, blamed Gaza's Islamic Hamas rulers for the escalation in violence and said the militant movement would "suffer the consequences."
The Israeli military has completed its preparations for a major ground offensive and notified the government it is ready to move immediately when the order is given, Israeli defense officials said. But Israel does not intend to launch a major ground offensive in the next week or two, partly because the military prefers to wait for clearer weather, they said, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.
Israeli troops and tanks were in action Friday against rocket squads firing from northern Gaza, and Israeli aircraft continued to pummel targets in the coastal territory. Four children and a grandmother were among the 15 wounded, according to Gaza health officials.
A Palestinian rocket hit a house in the rocket-scarred Israeli town of Sderot, slightly wounding one person, Israeli rescue officials said. Another rocket that fell short landed on a house in northern Gaza, moderately wounding four civilians.
A spike in violence that began Wednesday with Israel's killing of two rocket masterminds has killed 32 Palestinians, including 15 civilians, among them eight children. The youngest was a 6-month-old boy. An Israeli man was killed in a rocket attack on Sderot on Wednesday.
Israel blamed the high Palestinian civilian death toll on rocket squads operating within civilian areas of Gaza. AP photos showed rockets being launched from densely populated areas.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians took to the streets Friday to bury their dead and protest the Israeli attacks. Some children at the protests wore white clothes stained with red paint to signify blood.
Gaza's Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who like other Hamas officials has been in hiding for weeks for fear of an Israeli assassination attempt, emerged Friday for prayers. Hamas, he told a crowd of 2,000, will not be cowed.
"You are mistaken if you thought that targeting buildings, ministries and police stations is going to stop our work," Haniyeh said, directing his comments at Israel. "We will work under trees, in tents and in the streets."
After Thursday's rocket attacks on Ashkelon, Israel activated its "Code Red" rocket warning system there, after previously using it only in communities much closer to Gaza. The system picks up incoming rockets and sounds an alarm in the target area, giving residents time _ a few dozen seconds, in Ashkelon's case — to scramble for cover.
Despite past rocket hits in Ashkelon, Israel hesitated to activate the "Code Red" system there because officials didn't want to send 120,000 people running for shelter every time a rocket was launched in the direction of the city.