JERUSALEM - In a growing barrage of Israeli pressure against Hamas, a senior military commander said Israel is actively preparing to reoccupy the Gaza Strip and a powerful lawmaker said the entire Palestinian Cabinet could be targeted for assassination after the appointment of a wanted militant to head a new security force.
Officials said there were no immediate plans to strike at the Hamas-led government. But the comments reflected rising Israeli impatience with the Islamic militant group, which has refused to renounce violence, defended a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv this week and failed to halt militant rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.
"If the price we have to pay becomes unreasonable as a result of increased attacks, then we shall have to take all steps, including occupying the Gaza Strip," Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, head of Israel's southern command, told the Maariv daily.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told Turkey's state-run news agency Friday that reoccupation of the Gaza Strip would be a "deadly mistake."
Israel withdrew from Gaza last summer, ending 38 years of military occupation. Since the pullout, militants have fired rockets into southern Israel on a nearly daily basis.
Tensions were further heightened on Thursday when Hamas said it was forming a new security force commanded by Jamal Abu Samhadana, who heads a group responsible for many of the rocket attacks and is a suspect in a deadly attack on an American convoy.
Israeli lawmaker Danny Yatom, a retired head of the Mossad spy agency, said that not only Samhadana but the entire Hamas Cabinet is now a legitimate target for assassination.
"I understand that our sights are also trained on Hamas ministers, not only on the police chief," Yatom told Israel Radio. "Nobody who deals with terror can have immunity by any means, even if he holds a ministerial portfolio in the Hamas government."
Yatom, a member of the center-left Labor Party, did not name any particular minister as a potential target.
During five years of fighting, Israel has killed dozens of militants in "targeted killings." Samhadana is high on Israel's wanted list and has been the target of at least one attempted Israeli assassination.
"We have old scores to settle with this murderer," Israeli Cabinet minister Zeev Boim told Israel Radio. "He has no immunity and we will have to settle this score sooner or later."
Samhadana's group, the Popular Resistance Committees, has launched dozens of homemade rockets at Israel in recent weeks. It also is suspected of involvement in the October 2003 bombing in Gaza of a U.S. Embassy convoy, which killed three American security guards.
U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the formation of the new Palestinian police force showed "the true nature and the true tactics of this particular Hamas-led government." The United States will still hold the Palestinian Authority responsible for stopping terror attacks, he said.
Hamas, which is sworn to Israel's destruction, has largely observed a cease-fire with Israel since February 2005. But since taking office last month, the Hamas leadership has said attacks carried out by other groups, including Monday's suicide bombing that killed nine, are justified.
Israel says it holds Hamas responsible for all the violence, though defense officials are still weighing whether to begin attacking Hamas targets directly.
Galant, the Israeli commander, said patience is wearing thin with Hamas. He said the army is preparing for a range of responses to the rocket fire.
"It could be anything from a partial occupation of the Gaza Strip to a full occupation," he told Maariv, adding that the plans have been approved by senior officials, including Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.
Israel has responded to the rocket attacks with airstrikes and artillery fire on suspected launch sites. Israeli security officials concede it is very difficult to halt the primitive weapons, which are airborne for just 15 to 20 seconds and are hard to detect.
Israel already has made two brief incursions into Gaza in recent days to search for explosives. But defense officials said the odds of a large-scale operation or full occupation are slim because of financial and political constraints.
"I wouldn't want to reach that situation, but if it's forced upon us we have a plan to occupy the strip," Galant said. "We are in advanced stages of preparing forces for readiness. There is a practical plan and there are forces which are designated for specific operations and are training for them."
Israel is reluctant to go back into Gaza after spending hundreds of millions of dollars to withdraw and overcoming staunch internal political opposition. In addition, Israel is pleased with the international pressure on Hamas and fears military action could jeopardize that.
Galant's threat of a reoccupation could in part be aimed at an Israeli public outraged over the rocket fire. It could also be meant to put pressure on Hamas to halt the attacks.
Hamas defeated the long-dominant Fatah Party in January legislative elections, and its new Cabinet was sworn into office late last month.
The appointment of Samhadana was the latest step in a growing power struggle between Hamas and Abbas, a moderate who leads the Fatah party.
Soon after the new Cabinet was sworn in last month, Abbas appointed a longtime ally to head three security services that were supposed to fall under Hamas command. Abbas controls several other security services directly.