JERUSALEM (AFP) — Leading Israeli politicians called on Monday for toppling Hamas in the Gaza Strip as the country again grappled with how to halt persistent rocket fire from the Islamist-run territory.
As tensions rose, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's closest ally threw cold water on hopes that Israel and the Palestinians would make peace this year, a goal they set for themselves at a US meeting in November.
"We have to overturn the Hamas regime, pulverise its military force and liquidate all of its leaders, without making an artificial distinction between those who wear suicide belts and those who wear diplomat suits," said Tzahi Hanegbi, head of parliament's powerful foreign affairs and defence committee.
His comments reflected mounting Israeli anger over rockets fired from Gaza after an eight-year-old boy had his leg amputated after he was wounded by shrapnel on Saturday.
During a visit to Germany on Monday, Olmert said Israeli forces had been "authorised to act to change the situation so that the inhabitants of Sderot and other Israeli towns targeted by Palestinian rockets can live in security."
On Sunday, Olmert ruled out a widespread ground offensive in Gaza but warned that no one from Hamas was immune to Israeli strikes.
"We will continue to reach all the terror bodies -- those responsible for them, those who send them and those who operate them. We will not exclude anyone," he said.
A spokesman for Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since it seized control in June, warned Israel against targeting its leaders.
"The Israeli occupation should know that it will pay an unprecedented price if it proceeds with this kind of foolishness," Sami Abu Zuhri told AFP.
"The launching of rockets is directly tied to the Israeli escalation. The continuation of this escalation means the continuation of the rockets and the resistance to protect our people."
But while Israeli officials cautioned against an expanded ground offensive in Gaza, hundreds of residents of the rocket-battered southern Israeli town of Sderot protested in Tel Aviv, bringing traffic to a standstill on a main road.
Truck-mounted loudspeakers blared the rocket alarm that frequently rings out across Sderot as protesters held signs with pictures of Olmert and the caption "Failure -- go home."
They then continued to Jerusalem, where they held a demonstration in front of Olmert's office.
Meanwhile, Defence Minister Ehud Barak told the foreign affairs and defence committee that the army would take "any necessary step to return peace and security to the residents of Sderot".
The latest surge in violence came shortly after the Gaza-Egypt border was sealed on February 3, two weeks after it was breached by militants in response to a temporary Israeli freeze of all fuel and aid shipments to Gaza.
Twenty-three people, all but one of them militants, have been killed by army raids while Gaza gunmen have fired more than 100 rockets and mortar rounds into southern Israel, wounding a handful of people.
On Monday, India, a close ally of Israel, condemned the "use of force on the civilian population of Palestine and (called) upon all sides, including Israel, to exercise restraint," according to a foreign ministry statement.
The violence threatens to further undermine peace talks revived at a US-hosted conference in November after a seven-year freeze and aimed at concluding a peace treaty by the end of 2008.
Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon -- Olmert's closest ally -- appeared to scale down the ambitions of US President George W. Bush, who had hoped to shepherd a peace deal before he leaves office in January 2009.
"I believe President Bush is expecting a declaration of principles. If it will be more detailed or less detailed is less important," Ramon said.
"It has to be detailed enough in order to implemented in the years after 2008, two or three years after."
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