JERUSALEM—A senior Israeli defence official said on Friday that Palestinians firing rockets from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip would bring upon themselves what he termed a "shoah", the Hebrew word for holocaust or disaster.
The word is rarely used in Israel outside discussions of the Nazi Holocaust of Jews. Many Israelis are loath to countenance its use to describe other contemporary events.
Israeli air strikes have killed at least 33 Gazans, including five children, in the past two days. Israeli leaders said cross-border rocket fire may leave the Jewish state with no choice but to launch a broader military offensive.
One Israeli was killed in a rocket attack on Wednesday in the southern border town of Sderot. Tensions increased further after longer-range rockets hit the city of Ashkelon.
Visiting Ashkelon, Defence Minister Ehud Barak told Channel 10 television an Israeli response was "required" and that "Hamas bears responsibility for this deterioration and it will also bear the results".
Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai told Army Radio earlier that "the more Qassam (rocket) fire intensifies and the rockets reach a longer range, they (the Palestinians) will bring upon themselves a bigger 'shoah' because we will use all our might to defend ourselves."
Vilnai's spokesman said: "Mr. Vilnai was meaning 'disaster'. He did not mean to make any allusion to the genocide."
Israel's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Arye Mekel, said: "Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai used the Hebrew phrase that included the term 'shoah' in Hebrew in the sense of a disaster or a catastrophe, and not in the sense of a holocaust."
Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas's prime minister in the Gaza Strip, said: "This is a proof of Israel's pre-planned aggressive intentions against our people. They want the world to condemn what they call the Holocaust and now they are threatening our people with a holocaust".
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has so far been wary of launching a major ground offensive, which could incur heavy casualties and derail U.S.-backed peace talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But domestic pressure is growing.
According to Israel's mass circulation daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, Barak sought to prepare the way for an offensive by sending confidential messages to world leaders, including U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who will visit the region next week.
"Israel is not keen on and rushing for an offensive, but Hamas is leaving us no choice," Barak told the leaders, Yedioth said.
Security sources were quoted by Israel Radio and Army Radio as saying that a major operation was being prepared but was not yet imminent.
Israel pulled troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip in 2005 but still maintains control of the territory's air space, coastal waters and major border crossings.
Hamas has raised the stakes by using Soviet-designed Grad missiles, more powerful and accurate than improvised Gazan Qassams, to strike deep into Ashkelon, a city of 120,000 people.
Israel says it can maintain parallel tracks with the Palestinians, one aimed at breaking Hamas's hold on Gaza, and the other aimed at reaching a statehood agreement with Abbas, whose Western-backed Fatah forces were routed from Gaza in June by Iranian-backed Hamas.
Shunned by the West for refusing to renounce violence after beating Abbas's Fatah faction in a parliamentary election two years ago, Hamas says it would cease fire if Israel stopped its military operations in Gaza and the occupied West Bank.
Hamas is also demanding an end to the Israeli-led blockade that has cut supplies to the territory's 1.5 million people.