Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshal on Saturday condemned an ongoing Israel Defense Forces operation in the northern Gaza Strip against rocket fire on southern Israel, calling it a "real holocaust."

Meshal, who is based in Syria, appeared to be echoing comments made Friday by Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai, who warned of a "shoah" in Gaza if the rocket fire does not end.

The word "shoah," Hebrew for holocaust or calamity, is used primarily to describe the Nazi genocide of six million Jews during World War Two.

He said the Palestinians would be 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's spokesman, Eitan Ginzburg, said Saturday the deputy defense minister never intended it as a reference to the Holocaust but used the word "shoah" to denote a disaster.

The minister was quoted Saturday by Army Radio as saying that while events in Gaza escalate, so do the chances of Israel using greater force.

Meshal said that Palestinian fighters in Gaza had little option but to keep firing rockets on Israel and resist "Israeli aggression."

"No one in his right mind would like to see Israel invade Gaza, but the battle has been forced on us. The rockets are a reaction. Israeli aggression came first," Meshal said.

"We won't surrender. Rockets are the arsenal we have to protect our people. The only option in front of us is resistance and self-defense," Meshal told reporters in Damascus.

He also accused Israel of exaggerating the Holocaust and using it to blackmail the world.

"Israel wants to exaggerate the Holocaust and make from it a tragedy such that no other can have their own tragedy," he said. "The Palestinian people are the victims and Israel is the hangman and killer," he added.

He also lashed out at Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the rival Fatah movement, accusing him of providing a cover for the Israeli holocaust in Gaza by claiming that Hamas militants were sheltering al-Qaida terrorists.

He blamed some European countries, without naming them, for keeping silent on Israeli attacks against Palestinian civilians.

"It is shameful that some Western countries try to clear their conscience with regards to the Holocaust that took place on their own land by being silent on the real holocaust being committed by Israel against the Palestinian people," he said.

Meshal warned Israel against the folly of invading Gaza, saying IDF soldiers would be defeated by Palestinians who will "fight like lions."

The Hamas leader called on Arabs and Muslims worldwide to go back to the streets in the East and West... to tell the world that "we will not stay silent in the face of this holocaust."

Following Mashal's press conference, some 3,000 Palestinians at the Yarmouk refugee camp marched with Palestinian flags to protest the Gaza attacks. 'Death to America, Death to Israel!' they shouted.

Meanwhile in Jordan, some 500 angry demonstrators gathered in the al-Wihdat refugee camp Saturday on the outskirts of Amman to protest the IDF strikes in Gaza. The protesters, mainly followers of the Islamic Action Front - Jordan's largest political opposition - shouted slogans against Israel and burned Israeli flags.

Later Saturday evening in Lebanon, thousands gathered at the Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp to protest the Gaza attacks.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia said Palestinian leaders, including Abbas, recommended suspending peace talks at a meeting Saturday in the West Bank city of Ramallah. "I think it will be suspended," Qureia said.

"What is happening in Gaza is a massacre of civilians, women and children, a collective killing, genocide," Qureia added. "We can't bear what the Israelis are doing, and what the Israelis are doing doesn't lend the peace process any credibility."

Hamas blasts world's silence

Hamas officials on Saturday condemned what they called "international silence" over the IDF operations in Gaza. Hamas said the lack of response included no reaction from members of the Arab world.

Meanwhile, later Saturday the Jordanian and Egyptian governments condemned Israel's operations, and the Lebanese guerilla group joined Meshal in describing the attacks as a 'holocaust'.

The latest round of fighting erupted Wednesday, when the IDF killed five Gaza militants responsible for ongoing rocket fire on southern Israel, which triggered a massive rocket barrage.

An Israeli man was killed Wednesday when a Qassam rocket struck his car on the outskirts of the Negev town of Sderot. Dozens of rockets have struck the south of Israel, some hitting as far north as Ashkelon, some 15 kilometers from Gaza.

Defense Minster Ehud Barak on Friday blamed Hamas for the escalating violence, and said the extremist group would bear the consequences.

"Hamas is directly responsible for the current situation and will be the one to bear the cost of our response", Barak said during a visit to Ashkelon, adding that "an Israeli response is necessary and will be carried out."