With rockets falling on southern Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday issued a tough warning to Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, saying that those who attack his country are risking their lives.
Netanyahu delivered the threat in a policy speech to Israel's parliament. He spoke shortly after his foreign minister urged Israel to go even further and topple the Islamic Hamas regime in Gaza, a scenario that would require a lengthy and dangerous military operation.
The Israeli military has been battling rocket-firing Palestinian militant squads for several days. The fighting has killed at least 10 Palestinian militants and an Israeli civilian. It is the worst Israeli-Palestinian violence in months.
He vowed to act with "strength and determination" and warned: "Whoever attacks Israel is risking his life."
In his speech, Netanyahu praised Israel's new rocket defense system, Iron Dome, which has shot down several incoming rockets.
"But our defense strategies cannot be based on defensive measures alone," he said. "It has to include an offensive capability as well. That is the foundation of our deterrence."
Despite Egyptian efforts to mediate a cease-fire, Palestinian rockets continued to strike Israel on Monday, including at least four projectiles that exploded shortly after Netanyahu's speech. There were no reports of injuries or damage. One, headed toward the southern city of Beersheba, was shot down by the Iron Dome system, the military said.
The Hamas militant group, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in past violence, has not been directly involved in the latest rocket fire. Nonetheless, Israel says the group, which has ruled Gaza since overrunning the territory in 2007, is responsible for all attacks from the territory.
The attacks have disrupted life in southern Israel, forcing schools and universities to close. About 1 million Israelis live in range of rockets from Gaza.
Netanyahu's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, told his Yisrael Beitenu Party on Monday that the continued attacks are intolerable. "Israel's goal should be to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza," he said.
Lieberman is known for making harsh statements, and there was no word on whether he was voicing government policy or an individual opinion. Netanyahu's office declined comment.
In Gaza, Hamas officials condemned the Israeli threats.
"These remarks reflect the brutal attitude and mentality of the enemy leadership, which does not respect the calm and all the efforts that have been made in this regard," said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.
He urged the international community to pressure Israel not to launch "any crazy adventure" in Gaza.
Despite the tough Israeli threats, removing Hamas would not be easy. Israeli defense officials say any such operation would require Israel to reoccupy Gaza, take months and could involve heavy casualties.
Since seizing control of Gaza, Hamas has smuggled in a formidable arsenal of weapons that include rockets capable of striking deep inside Israel, as well as anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, according to Israeli assessments.
Israeli defense officials have confirmed that contingency plans have been drawn up for a broad invasion of Gaza to topple Hamas. But they said this is a worst-case scenario, and the preference is to restore the calm that has largely prevailed since an Israeli offensive in 2009.
Israel captured Gaza in the 1967 Mideast war, but withdrew all troops and settlers from the area in 2005.
"I don't rule out that at some point we might find ourselves required to embark upon a full-fledged operation (in Gaza)," Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Army Radio. "(But) I am not one of those people who miss returning to Gaza."
Hamas lost hundreds of men during the 2009 Israeli offensive and has largely maintained calm since then.
The group is also waiting for Israel to free more than 500 Palestinian prisoners in a second phase of a swap for a long-held Israeli soldier. A protracted cycle of new violence could endanger that release, which was a major political coup for Hamas among the Palestinian people.
On Monday Israel sentenced a Palestinian lawmaker to 30 years in prison. Jamal Tirawi was convicted of involvement in a 2002 attack that killed an Israeli woman and wounded dozens of others.
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