Hamas evacuates compounds after Israeli warning


HAMAS HAS evacuated many of its compounds in the Gaza Strip, fearing stepped-up Israeli air strikes after Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Israel was ready for much wider and deeper operations to stop militant rocket fire into Israel.

At least four militants in Gaza were killed and a number of other people injured in a series of Israeli air strikes as some 80 rockets landed yesterday in southern Israel. Mr Netanyahu said Israel was prepared to step up its military pressure to stop the rocket fire.

“We didn’t ask for this escalation and didn’t initiate it, but if it continues, we are prepared to embark on a far more extensive and penetrating operation.” In an unusual move, a Hamas military spokesman confirmed that its members took part in the firing of rockets after one of its members was killed in an Israeli attack on Monday.

Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak said a ground incursion into Gaza was an option, but that such a step need not be taken hastily.

“If we need a ground operation there will be a ground operation. We will do whatever necessary to stop this wave of violence. I trust the army commanders, and if they believe it’s necessary – and if it’s what the government decides on – then yes, it’s not out of the question.”

Some 80 rockets and mortars have been fired from Gaza into Israel since Tuesday night. Two foreign workers were critically wounded, a number of homes were hit and schools close to the Gaza border were closed for the day.

The Israeli air force carried out a number of sorties and reported direct hits on militant cells preparing to launch rockets.

Mr Barak said Israel had killed 15 senior militants in Gaza over the past week.

Despite the flare-up, the Israeli assessment is that Hamas was not seeking a further escalation.

In the past Egypt has mediated an end to hostilities on the Gaza border, but the Egyptian leadership lacks the same level of intimacy with Israeli officials as the regime of ousted president Hosni Mubarak.

Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman told visiting European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton that the situation was intolerable.

“No European country would agree to a similar reality. We cannot continue to restrain ourselves,” he warned.

Israelis go to the polls in January and as campaigning got under way last week, Mr Netanyahu boasted that his period as prime minister coincided with a relatively calm security situation. A period of ongoing tension in the south, with hundreds of thousands of residents ordered to stay close to bomb shelters, could have a decisive impact on the campaign.

Opposition leader Shaul Mofaz, head of the centrist Kadima, was quick to blame the government for allowing the Hamas regime in Gaza to take the initiative. He said Israel needed to regain its deterrence by hitting back hard.

“Instead of fear-mongering on Iran, we need a decisive defence policy,” he said.