With city of 120,000 under rocket fire, Israel warns of Gaza invasion
The Associated Press | February 29, 2008 at 07:49 amby
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ASHKELON, Israel (AP) -- Israeli leaders warned Friday of an approaching conflagration in the Gaza Strip as Israel activated a rocket warning system to protect Ashkelon, a city of 120,000 people, from Palestinian rockets.
Ashkelon was hit by several Grad rockets fired from Gaza on Thursday, a sign of the widening scope of violence between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza. One hit an apartment building and another landed near a school, wounding a 17-year-old girl.
Located 11 miles from Gaza, Ashkelon had been sporadically targeted in the past but never suffered direct hits or significant damage.
"It will be sad, and difficult, but we have no other choice,'' Matan Vilnai, Israel's deputy defense mister, said Friday, referring to the large-scale military operation he said Israel was preparing to bring a halt to the rocket fire.
"We're getting close to using our full strength. Until now, we've used a small percentage of the army's power because of the nature of the territory,'' Vilnai told Army Radio on Friday.
Israel does not intend to launch a major ground offensive in the next week or two, partly because the military prefers to wait for better weather, defense officials said. But the army has now completed its preparations and informed the government it's ready to move immediately when the order is given, the officials said, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.
After Thursday's rocket attacks on Ashkelon, Israel activated its "Code Red'' rocket warning system there. The system picks up incoming rockets and sounds an alarm in the target area, giving residents time -- a few dozen seconds, in Ashkelon's case -- to scramble for cover.
Until now, the Palestinian rocket squads have largely targeted Sderot, a small town near Gaza. Ashkelon, a major population center only 25 miles from Israel's heart in Tel Aviv, was caught unprepared, its mayor said Friday.
"It's a city of 120,000 people, with large facilities -- a huge soccer stadium, and a basketball stadium, and a beach. No one is ready for this,'' Roni Mehatzri told Israel Radio.
On Friday, dozens of soldiers in orange berets from the Israeli military's Home Front Command arrived in Ashkelon and hung posters around the city instructing residents on what to do in case of a rocket attack.
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