Olmert urges caution on Gaza operation


Israel's outgoing prime minister Ehud Olmert has brushed aside calls for an immediate large-scale operation in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in response to an escalation of cross-border rocket fire after a truce expired.

Palestinian militants have fired more than 50 makeshift rockets and mortar shells at Israel since a six-month-old Egyptian-brokered ceasefire with Hamas ended on Friday.

Over the weekend, one Palestinian militant was killed in an Israeli air strike and at least one person in southern Israel was injured by shrapnel from a mortar shell.

Unless Hamas stopped the salvoes, Israeli cabinet minister Isaac Herzog said the army would have no choice but to take "severe action", though he did not say what that might entail.

"It needs to be clear. A strike in Gaza will come, and it will be hard and painful," Mr Herzog said.

But prime minister Ehud Olmert suggested a more measured approach for now, underscoring the difficult choices facing the government in the run-up to a February 10th election.

The rocket fire has increased pressure on Mr Olmert and his government to launch a major operation that could result in heavy casualties on both sides, create a severe humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip and spark an international outcry.

The right-wing Likud party of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has led in the polls, accused Mr Olmert and his government of failing to protect Israeli civilians bordering the Gaza Strip, which Hamas Islamists seized in June 2007.

"A government doesn't rush to battle, but doesn't avoid it either," Mr Olmert told his cabinet.

He cautioned fellow ministers and opposition parties against making "bold statements", and suggested he favoured a wait-and-see approach. "Israel will know how to give the proper response at the right time in the right way, responsibly."

A total of 10 salvoes from Gaza hit Israel today, prompting the army to launch an air strike against a rocket launcher and to keep border crossings closed, preventing the passage of humanitarian supplies.

An Israeli air strike on Saturday killed a militant from al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, the armed wing of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas's secular Fatah faction.

The Islamic Jihad militant group has claimed responsibility for most of the rocket fire.

Civilians on both sides seemed to shrug off the end of the ceasefire, which many in Gaza feel never delivered the expected easing of the Israeli blockade, and many in Israel feel never produced the sought security from Palestinian attacks.

The truce had been eroding since early November when a deadly Israeli raid prompted militants to step up rocket attacks, most of which cause no injuries and little damage.