JERUSALEM — Israel's defense minister threatened Sunday to move against Hamas leaders in Gaza as the next step in a confrontation that on Saturday reached its deadliest level in years.
Clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian fighters that have killed more than 100 Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers eased slightly on Sunday, and the number of rockets fired from Gaza into Israel also dropped.
But the rhetoric continued to escalate, with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak warning that the Israel Defense Forces were prepared to storm into Gaza and overthrow its Hamas rulers.
"When the green light is given for the IDF to go in with its full forces, the goals will be first of all, stopping the Qassam fire, second of all lessening the weapons smuggling from Egypt, third of all weakening Hamas rule and, under the right circumstances, overthrowing the Hamas government," Barak warned in an unusually blunt interview on Army Radio. "And, in the long term, complete severance from Gaza."
An Israeli attempt to forcibly depose Hamas rulers in Gaza would mark a significant change in Israeli policy, and Barak might have been speaking out-of-turn.
"There is no such policy," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "Obviously, in the long term, we would like to see the legitimate Palestinian government resume control of the Gaza Strip. Having said that, that is not one of our military objectives."
Hamas leaders dismissed Barak's threats as the latest in a string of counter-productive attempts to weaken the Islamist group's power.
"All the time they are talking about toppling Hamas and every day Hamas is getting stronger," said Ahmed Yousef, a political advisor to Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader who was the Palestinian Authority's prime minister until he was fired last summer. "With these bloody massacres they have committed they are making people stand with Hamas."
Four days of deadly Israeli attacks inside Gaza already have created significant political aftershocks across the Middle East.
Angry West Bank Palestinians poured into the streets of Bethlehem and Jerusalem's Old City on Sunday to protest the ongoing Israeli military operation. In Hebron, Israeli soldiers shot and killed one teenage Palestinian demonstrator.
Less than 48 hours before U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was due in the region on her latest diplomatic mission, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas temporarily suspended peace talks with the Israelis.
Even before the latest Gaza clashes, Rice was returning to face a stagnant peace process and rising cynicism about the Bush administration's ability to keep talks on track. Now her ability to push talks forward has again been setback.
The latest military escalation began Wednesday when an Israeli father of four was killed by a relatively unsophisticated Qassam rocket fired from Gaza. The following day, Palestinian militants unleashed a salvo of more advanced rockets on Ashkelon, the largest Israeli city near the Gaza border.
Israeli officials said the targeting of Ashkelon, a city of 120,000 just 10 miles from the Gaza border, was an unacceptable escalation. Almost immediately, Israel sent tanks and troops into Gaza and launched air and artillery barrages.
Since Thursday, Israeli forces have killed more than 100 Palestinians — including 18 children, according to Israeli human rights groups and Gaza medical officials.
The deadly attacks have generated a growing chorus of calls for Israel to pull back.
"While recognizing Israel's right to defend itself, I condemn the disproportionate and excessive use of force that has killed and injured so many civilians, including children," said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.
The growing international criticism drew a defensive reaction from Israeli Prime Minister Olmert.
"It must be noted that the state of Israel defends its residents in the south and that, with all due respect, nothing will deter us from continuing to defend our residents," Olmert said at the start of his weekly cabinet meeting Sunday.
"Nobody has the right to preach morality to the State of Israel for taking basic action to defend itself and prevent hundreds of thousands of residents of the south from continuing to be exposed to incessant firing that disrupts their lives."
Olmert has been facing increasing pressure to take more dramatic steps to stop the near-daily rocket attacks from Gaza. Until now, Olmert has been reluctant to approve a major invasion of Gaza that could lead to prolonged military occupation. He's also rejected suggestions that Israel negotiate a cease-fire with Hamas.
"Choosing between the two options is like choosing between plague and cholera," Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea wrote in Sunday's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. "Nonetheless, it appears there is no other choice."
(Special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.)
Read Dion Nissenbaum's blog, Checkpoint Jerusalem, at http://washingtonbureau.typepad.com/jerusalem/