A senior Israeli defense 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, and Israeli leaders said cross-border rocket fire may leave the Jewish state with little 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, a major population centre about 10 km (6 miles) from Gaza.

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 told Army Radio.

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, added: Deputy Defense 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.

Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said of Vilnai's comments: We are facing new Nazis who want to kill and burn the Palestinian people.

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.

Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas's prime minister in the Gaza Strip, described the threat of a major Israeli offensive as craziness and hysteria, saying: Our people are facing a real war.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud 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 plans to 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, according to Israel's mass circulation daily, Yedioth Ahronoth.

Security sources were quoted by both Israel Radio and Army Radio as saying that a major operation was being prepared but was not yet imminent.

A senior member of Olmert's centrist Kadima party, Tzachi Hanegbi, said the army should prepare to topple Hamas and capture areas used by militants to fire the rockets.

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 in the confrontation 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 last June by Iranian-backed Hamas.

Although Abbas and his secular Fatah faction remain deeply hostile to Hamas, the president and his West Bank-based government have publicly criticized Israel for its military actions and for threatening to kill Hamas political leaders.

The Israeli government ... aims to destroy the peace process, Abbas's spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdainah, said Thursday.

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.