Israel preparing for an invasion of Gaza

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of Israel, left, in Cairo on Thursday with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. (Amr Nabil/The Associated Press)

JERUSALEM: Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned 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, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt urged Israel to show restraint in his meeting with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, an Israeli official said. Livni insisted that Israel would respond to protect its citizens.

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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 Thursday. “Whoever harms the citizens and soldiers of Israel will pay a heavy price.”

He did not elaborate. But defense officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to discuss the plans, said the Israeli operation would likely begin with precise 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.

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, which have been blockaded for months in an effort to pressure militants to halt their fire. Hamas seized control of Gaza in June 2007, after routing security forces loyal to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who is backed by the West.

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 the bombardment Wednesday, Livni – who is running for prime minister in Israel’s February elections – dismissed that option.

When Mubarak urged Israel to show restraint in the face of the rocket barrages, Livni brushed off the idea. “Enough is enough,” she said, according to a statement from her office. “When there’s shooting, there’s a response. Any state would react that way.”

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel 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 TV network Al Arabiya that Israel would not hesitate to respond with force if attacks continued.

Also Thursday, Abbas visited Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank, for the first time since he took office in 2005.

Published: December 25, 2008

Source: International Herald Tribune

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