Israel Says Rocket Fire May Lead to Invasion

JERUSALEM -- Israel said it would return to Hamas-ruled Gaza if necessary, as it mounted new airstrikes Tuesday on the Palestinian territory after militants fired more rockets at a nearby Israeli town.

"We cannot afford this kind of extreme Islamic state controlled by Hamas," Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told foreign diplomats in a meeting, according to a ministry statement released Tuesday. Israel evacuated Gaza "not in order to come back, but we might find ourselves in a situation that we have no other alternative."

Livni did not elaborate, but the ministry later said she was referring to military incursions into the coastal strip.

Israel pulled its settlers and troops out of Gaza in 2005, and last June Islamic Hamas militants violently seized control there. Responding to persistent Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza on southern Israel, the military launched an offensive last week that Palestinians officials say has killed more than 120 in Gaza. An Israeli civilian and two soldiers have also been killed.

The violence persisted even as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who arrived in the region Tuesday, appealed to Israelis and Palestinians to resume negotiations.

Moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who controls a West Bank government that rivals Hamas' Gaza regime, called off talks with Israel on Sunday to protest the exceptionally high death toll from the latest military operation in Gaza.

Speaking at a joint news conference with Rice in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Abbas said "peace and negotiations are our strategic choice" but stopped short of announcing a resumption of talks.

"I call on the Israeli government to halt its aggression so the necessary environment can be created to make negotiations succeed, for us and for them, to reach the shores of peace in 2008," Abbas said, referring to the goal of reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty stated at a U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace conference in November.

Israel began the offensive last week after militants fired rockets at the city of Ashkelon, 17 kilometers north of Gaza, reaching closer to Israel's heartland than ever before.

The violence has transformed Rice's previously scheduled mission from nudging the sides toward progress in peace talks to rescuing the negotiations from collapse.

Although Abbas has had no power over Gaza since Hamas seized control, the high death toll, which included dozens of civilians, made it difficult for him to continue the talks.

Rice called for the resumption of peace talks as soon as possible, saying they were necessary to counter Hamas' influence.

"What we are trying to achieve is not easy ... but I do believe it can be done. We need very much for everybody to be focused on peace," she told the news conference.

"The rocket attacks against innocent Israelis in their cities need to stop. This can't go on. No Israeli government can tolerate that," she said. But the Israelis "need to be aware of the effects of these operations on innocent people."