Israeli minister threatens to unleash a 'holocaust' on Palestinians

Last updated at 00:13 01 March 2008

Victim: A six-month-old baby killed by Israeli missile strikes is wrapped in a Hamas flag before being buried yesterday

An Israeli minister yesterday threatened Palestinians who continue to attack Israel with a "holocaust".

Controversially, Matan Vilnai used the word "shoah" - which is almost exclusively used in Israel to describe the Nazi extermination of the Jews.

Its literal translation is disaster, but many Israelis refuse to use the word to describe other events.

The defence minister's phrase was rapidly played down by officials but Hamas was quick to stoke controversy, calling Israelis "new Nazis".

The Deputy Defence Minister was issuing the threat to those firing rockets into Israel from the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip.

Tensions have increased in the past few days after Israeli air strikes killed at least 33 Gazans, including five children.

Yesterday Hamas fired rockets on the city of Ashkelon, about six miles from Gaza.

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Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Hamas is leaving Israel no choice but to attack

Mr Vilnai said: "The more 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."

After his words on Army Radio were reported on international newswires, the Israeli government moved to play down their significance.

Israel's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Arye Mekel, said: "Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai used the Hebrew phrase that included the term 'shoah' in the sense of a disaster or a catastrophe, and not in the sense of a holocaust." But Hamas officials were quick to take advantage of a chance to further their own cause.

Spokesman 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 is wary of launching a major ground offensive, which could incur heavy casualties and derail US-backed peace talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

But domestic pressure is growing. Visiting Ashkelon yesterday, 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".

Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas's prime minister in the Gaza Strip, described the threat of a major Israeli offensive as "craziness and hysteria".

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Palestinians inspect their damaged house in Gaza today after an Israeli air strike

Barak sought to prepare the way for an offensive by sending confidential messages to world leaders, including US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who plans to visit the region next week.

"Israel is not keen on rushing for an offensive but Hamas is leaving us no choice," Barak told the leaders, according to Israel's mass circulation daily, Yedioth Ahronoth.

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Israelis react after a Hamas Qassam rocket hit a house today in Sderot, Israel

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.

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