Israel warns of disaster in Gaza

( AP ) - Israel's deputy defense minister warned of disaster in the Gaza Strip after Palestinian rocket fire grew more ominous Friday with an assault on an Israeli city. Gaza's unbowed Hamas rulers promised to fight on.

Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai told Army Radio that because of the militants' attacks, Israel had "no other choice" but to launch a massive military operation in the Gaza Strip.

"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 said.

The Hebrew word "shoah" most often refers to 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.

The escalating violence comes ahead of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to the region next week. It also clouds already troubled efforts by Palestinians and Israel - and backed by Washington - to reach a peace accord by year's end.

The Israeli military has completed preparations for a major ground offensive and notified the government it is ready to move, defense officials said. An invasion is not expected for the next week or two, in part because the military prefers to wait for clearer weather, the officials said.

Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, dismissed Vilnai's comments, saying: "We are not afraid of these threats."

The violence highlights Hamas' role as a possible spoiler in peace talks. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas could find it difficult to negotiate with Israel if there is an invasion of Gaza, and Israel's fragile governing coalition will find it hard to make concessions while Palestinian rockets reach deeper into its territory.

Hamas and Abbas' Fatah are vying for control of the Palestinian territories. Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, and Abbas and Fatah control a rival government in the West Bank.

Abbas called on Israel to stop all attacks in Gaza and urged Palestinian militants to halt the rocket fire. "It is in the interest of the Palestinian people not to give Israel any pretext to continue its aggressions," a statement from his office said.

State Department spokesman Tom Casey denounced Hamas' rocket attacks as "completely unacceptable" and demanded they stop. He also said the U.S. regularly urges Israel to consider the consequences of its actions and to pay careful attention to the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people.

Tony Blair, the envoy of a group of international Mideast mediators known as the Quartet, condemned the Palestinian rocket attacks and urged Israel to do "everything possible" to avoid killing Palestinian civilians.

Israel evacuated its troops and settlers from Gaza in late 2005. Hamas militants have since fired rockets into Israel from the territory that was abandoned.

On Thursday, the threat escalated when Iranian-made rockets struck Ashkelon, a city 11 miles north of Gaza.

Most previous rocket attacks targeted small border communities near Gaza. With the strike on Ashkelon, with 120,000 residents, pressure increased on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to protect the Israeli heartland.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Friday that the assaults on Ashkelon "demand an Israeli retaliation." He blamed Hamas for the spike in violence and said the militant movement would "suffer the consequences."

Israeli troops, tanks and aircraft on Friday attacked rocket squads firing from northern Gaza. Four children and a woman were among the 15 wounded, Gaza health officials said.

Militants fired 17 rockets at Israel throughout the day. One hit a house in the rocket-scarred town of Sderot, wounding one person, Israeli officials said. Another rocket fell short of its target and landed on a house in northern Gaza, wounding four civilians, Palestinian medical officials said.

The latest round of violence began Wednesday after Israel killed two of the militants' rocket masterminds. Thirty-two Palestinians have died in the past three days, including 15 civilians. Eight were children, the youngest a 6-month-old boy.

An Israeli man was killed in a rocket attack on Sderot on Wednesday.

Israel blamed the Palestinian civilian death toll on rocket squads operating within civilian areas of Gaza.

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 had been hiding for weeks for fear Israeli aircraft would fire missiles at him, but on Friday emerged for prayers and vowed Hamas would not be intimidated.

"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."

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