JERUSALEM - Israel yesterday moved closer to invading Gaza, saying that it had wrapped up preparations for a broad offensive after Palestinian militants fired about 100 rockets and mortar shells across the border in two days.
Israel's foreign minister brushed off a call for restraint from Egypt's president, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a direct appeal to Gaza's people to pressure their leaders to stop the barrages. But the attacks showed no signs of ending. By nightfall, three rockets and 15 mortar shells had exploded in Israel.
Olmert issued his appeal in a rare interview with the Arabic-language satellite channel al-Arabiya, saying that Israel would not hesitate to respond with force if the attacks continued.
"I am telling them now, it may be the last minute, I'm telling them stop it," he said. "We are stronger."
Yesterday's rocket fire was far less than the barrage of 80 rockets the previous day, and there were no reports of injuries. But Israeli leaders said that the continued fire - the most intense since Egypt brokered a cease-fire last June - was unacceptable.
One of the mortar shells landed at Israel's passenger crossing with Gaza just as a group of Palestinian Christians was going through on their way to the West Bank town of Bethlehem for Christmas celebrations, the military said. Another rocket exploded after nightfall in an industrial park south of the coastal city of Ashkelon, police said.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak invited Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to Cairo to discuss the possibility of renewing the truce, which expired Friday. But by the time Livni arrived, she was in no mood to discuss a cease-fire, and she dismissed Mubarak's pleas for restraint.
"Enough is enough," she said afterward. "When there's shooting, there's a response. Any state would react that way." *