Israel Completes Preparations for Gaza Offensive Amid Continuing Rocket Fire

By Mark Lavie
Associated Press
Friday, December 26, 2008

JERUSALEM, Dec. 25 -- Israel moved closer to invading the Gaza Strip, saying Thursday that it had wrapped up preparations for a broad offensive after Palestinian fighters fired about 100 rockets and mortar shells across the border in two days.

Israel's foreign minister brushed off a call for restraint from Egypt's president, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a direct appeal to Gaza's people to pressure their leaders to stop the barrages. But the attacks showed no signs of ending. By nightfall, three rockets and 15 mortar shells had exploded in Israel.

Olmert issued his appeal in a rare interview with the Arabic-language satellite channel al-Arabiya, saying Israel would not hesitate to respond with force if the attacks continued.

"I am telling them now, it may be the last minute, I'm telling them stop it. We are stronger," he said.

Thursday's rocket fire was far less intense than the barrage of 80 rockets the previous day, and there were no reports of injuries. But Israeli leaders said the continued fire -- the most intense since Egypt brokered a cease-fire in June -- was unacceptable.

One of the mortar shells landed at Israel's passenger crossing with Gaza just as a group of Palestinian Christians were going through on their way to the West Bank town of Bethlehem for Christmas celebrations, the military said. Another rocket exploded after nightfall in an industrial park south of the coastal city of Ashkelon, police said.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak invited Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to Cairo to discuss the possibility of renewing the truce, which expired last Friday. But by the time Livni arrived, she was in no mood to discuss a cease-fire, and she dismissed Mubarak's pleas for restraint. "Enough is enough," she said afterward. "When there's shooting, there's a response. Any state would react that way."

In Israel, Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned that "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 discussing classified information, said the Israeli operation would probably begin with surgical 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.

Another complication is national elections set for Feb. 10. Both Barak and Livni are running for prime minister, and they are under heavy pressure from another candidate, opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, to act. Netanyahu, who advocates tough action against the Palestinians, is the front-runner in the election, according to opinion polls.

The barrages have caused no casualties over the past two days, but there has been property damage, and tens of thousands of Israelis near Gaza have been instructed to stay indoors. TV newscasts have been showing panic-stricken children.

Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 after a 38-year occupation but still controls its border crossings, blockaded for months in response to the rocket attacks. The armed Islamist movement Hamas seized control of Gaza in June 2007, after routing forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company