Text size

Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned on Thursday that militants in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip 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, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak 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.

On Wednesday, Palestinian militants pummeled southern Israel from Gaza with more than 80 rockets and mortar shells, 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 on Thursday. "Whoever harms the citizens and soldiers of Israel will pay a heavy price."

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

Meanwhile Thursday, outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert urged Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to reject their Hamas rulers and warned he would not hesitate to use force to stop them from firing rockets at southern Israel.

"Hamas is firing on us and on the power station meant to give Gaza electricity. Stop them. Stop your enemy and ours," Olmert said in an interview with Al Arabiya television, according to his office.

"I will not hesitate to use Israel's might to strike Hamas and [Islamic] Jihad. How? I will not go into details now," the prime minister said in an appeal carried by the Arab news broadcaster which is widely watched in Gaza.

The premier was further quoted as saying: "Israel left Gaza about three years ago with no intention of returning... Is the spirit of Islam to kill innocent children, to fire rockets at kindergartens and civilians? I don't think that is the spirit of Islam.

"That Hamas does this in opposition to the spirit of Islam is the main reason for your suffering, and ours. I say to you in a last minute call, stop it. You, the residents of Gaza, can stop it."