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Hamas warns Israel not to invade Gaza

Times Staff Writer

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh emerged from weeks of hiding Friday to warn Israeli officials against an anticipated large-scale offensive to uproot the militant Islamic group from the Gaza Strip.

“I tell the leaders of the occupation: This round will end in terrible failure just like all the other rounds failed,” Haniyeh said at a mosque near his home in a Gaza City refugee camp.

Early today, about 20 Israeli tanks entered the Gaza Strip, and clashes were reported around the town of Jabaleya. Local hospital officials said at least 10 Palestinians were killed, including four civilians.

The burst of violence between the two sides has left one Israeli and at least 39 Palestinians dead. In Israel, the outbreak of hostilities and the apparent expansion of the zone vulnerable to Hamas rocket attacks to include the city of Ashkelon have increased pressure on the government for decisive action.

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Israeli officials warned Friday of an imminent military operation.

“It will be sad, and difficult, but we have no other choice,” Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said Friday in an interview with Army Radio. “We’re getting close to using our full strength.”

Haniyeh, in his Friday sermon, shrugged off the possibility.

“The threat of a ground invasion does not frighten the people of Gaza,” he said.

A large-scale invasion of Gaza, however, seems unlikely for several reasons.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, speaking to reporters this week, appeared to rule out an offensive for now. But he warned that “no one in Hamas . . . will be immune” from Israeli strikes.

Also, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to arrive Tuesday. A commentary in the Jerusalem Post predicted that Olmert “will not want to greet her with a mini-war raging in the Gaza Strip.”

Rice is expected to encourage progress in peace talks. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators continue to convene regularly, and Olmert meets often with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, but senior Palestinian official Yasser Abed-Rabbo recently said the talks were “simply not serious” and had produced few results.

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The negotiations have been overshadowed by the situation in Gaza. Hamas drove Abbas’ Fatah faction out last summer after a power-sharing agreement collapsed, establishing full control of the impoverished coastal strip. Hamas has permitted militant groups to fire homemade Kassam rockets toward the southern Israeli city of Sderot, a few miles away.

But on Thursday, a more advanced Grad model rocket struck a home in the coastal city of Ashkelon, more than 10 miles away. There were no fatalities, but the potential expansion in militants’ firing range prompted near-panic.

“No one is ready for this,” Ashkelon Mayor Roni Mehatzri said in a radio interview.

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ashraf.khalil@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.


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