GAZA (Reuters) - A year-old Palestinian girl and a senior Hamas bombmaker were killed in the Gaza Strip on Friday as Israel pressed home air strikes after a senior official warned Gazans they risked a “shoah” if rocket fire did not stop.
With the Palestinian death toll at 35 in three days, aides insisted the deputy defence minister used the Hebrew word not in its common meaning of holocaust but only as a term for disaster.
But the strength of his language reflected mounting anger after an Israeli was killed by a rocket on Wednesday and the government debated whether to mount a major ground offensive.
Hamas, which organised rallies in Gaza, held the comment up as proof their enemies in the Jewish state were the “new Nazis”.
Friday saw fewer air strikes. One, which the army said had targeted a rocket team, killed Eyad al-Ashram. Hamas said he was one of the Islamist group’s senior munitions experts, involved in what it said was a total of 208 rockets fired in February.
Doctors said one-year-old Malak al-Kafarna died in hospital from a shrapnel wound to the head after a missile exploded near her home, wounding four other civilians. Hamas officials said it was an Israeli surface-to-surface missile. Residents said some rockets fired by militants also fell short, landing inside Gaza.
Overnight Hamas gunmen clashed with Israeli troops backed by tanks in the north of the enclave, Hamas and residents said. The army had no comment. Small ground raids have not been uncommon.
But political sources said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was cautious on a major ground offensive and Israeli public radio stations quoted security sources saying that, while plans for an assault were being prepared, such an invasion was not imminent.
The United States, whose Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due next week to visit Olmert and Palestinian leaders in the occupied West Bank, urged Israel to “consider the consequences” of its action. Bloodshed could derail Washington’s hopes of a peace deal this year before President George W. Bush steps down.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has shared Israel’s hostility to Hamas since they routed his forces in Gaza in June, called Israeli threats “dangerous”. Even Palestinians who want to see Hamas defeated are outraged that at least 16 civilians, including children as young as 6 months, are among the 35 dead.
An Israeli army spokeswoman blamed militants for civilian deaths: “All the attacks were against terror targets and if children were nearby, the responsibility is in their hands.”
Critics say at least 68 deaths in Gaza in February and 62 in January are a disproportionate response to 3 Israeli deaths in a year. There has been international support for Israel’s right to defend itself against enemies who deny the Jewish state’s right to exist. But there have also been calls for restraint.
Hamas officials complained of an “international silence” over the “massacre”, however, including from fellow Arabs.
Israel’s deputy defence minister Matan Vilnai told Army Radio: “The more Qassam fire intensifies and the rockets reach a longer range, they will bring upon themselves a bigger ‘shoah’ because we will use all our might to defend ourselves.”
The word “shoah” is rarely used in Israel beyond discussions of the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews but government spokesmen said Vilnai had employed the word only to mean “disaster”.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, a former prime minister, said: “They want the world to condemn what they call the Holocaust and now they are threatening our people with a holocaust”.
Israeli leaders said rockets from the blockaded territory may leave them no choice but to launch a broader offensive into the blockaded coastal strip, which is home to 1.5 million people and which Israel occupied for 38 years until 2005.
Though rocket fire has long disrupted life in small Israeli border towns since then, the killing of an Israeli on Wednesday, the first such death since May, has increased public pressure on Olmert’s already unpopular coalition government to act.
Hamas has also raised the stakes by firing Soviet-designed Katyusha missiles, more powerful and accurate than improvised Gazan Qassams, to strike the much larger city of Ashkelon.
Visiting there, Defence Minister Ehud Barak said an Israeli response was “required” and that “Hamas bears responsibility for this deterioration and it will also bear the results”.
According to Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, Barak has sought to prepare the way for an offensive by sending confidential messages to world leaders, including Rice.
“Israel is not keen on and rushing for an offensive, but Hamas is leaving us no choice,” Barak told them, Yedioth said.
However, chastened by his 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, Olmert is wary of an operation that would incur more casualties when Israel is reluctant to re-occupy Gaza long-term.
Additional reporting by Adam Entous, Joseph Nasr and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem and Wafa Amr in Ramallah; Writing by Alastair Macdonald in Jerusalem; Editing by Matthew Jones