Israeli leaders are warning they won't tolerate continued rocket attacks from militants in the Gaza Strip, and are rebuffing calls for restraint from neighbouring Egypt amid reports the Israeli army is preparing for a major offensive against the Palestinian territory.

A rash of recent rocket and mortar attacks coming out of Gaza cannot be tolerated, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Thursday following talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The two met in Cairo to discuss the escalation of violence since a six-month ceasefire between Israel and Gaza militants ended last Friday.

"Hamas needs to understand that our aspiration to live in peace doesn't mean that Israel is going to take this kind of situation any longer," Livni said at the end of the meeting.

"Enough is enough. And while we are working with the pragmatic leaders, trying to change the situation on the ground in the West Bank, we cannot tolerate a situation in which Hamas continues to target Israel, Israel's citizens, and this situation is going to be changed."

Her sentiments were echoed by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who called on the people of Gaza to turn against Hamas, the Islamist political and military organization that holds de facto control of the area. 

"I'm telling them now it may be the last minute. I'm telling them stop it, we are stronger," Olmert said in an interview with Arabic satellite television channel al-Arabiya.

"There will be more blood there. Who wants it? We don't want it."

Large-scale assault

More than 80 rockets and mortars were fired from Gaza into Israel on Wednesday, with attacks continuing at a lesser rate on Thursday. Israeli forces have killed at least three militants in their own attacks on militant cells.

Olmert said he would not hesitate to use force to remove Hamas, which has controlled Gaza for 18 months. The Israeli military is reportedly preparing for a possible large-scale assault on the coastal territory.

Defence officials said the Israeli operation would likely begin with surgical airstrikes against rocket launchers and continue with a land invasion.

Harsh weather conditions are hampering visibility and complicating air-force missions, so the operation won't be launched until the skies clear, the officials said, speaking on condition on anonymity because they were discussing classified information.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit has pleaded with both sides to refrain from taking action.  

"Right now we see that missiles are being fired and right now we see Israeli incursions, or on the verge of incursions, into Gaza. What we are asking them both [is] to restrain themselves and then we'll see how to build back or to come back to that period of quiet," he said.

Mubarak, who helped broker the ceasefire, also implored Israel to exercise restraint in Gaza, suggesting Egypt is again prepared to mediate the conflict between the two sides.

Mubarak equally called on the Hamas administration in Gaza to stop firing rockets into Israel.

While the ceasefire brought some calm to the coastal area around Gaza and saw fewer rocket attacks on southern Israeli towns, both Israel and Hamas have accused one another of violating the terms of the agreement.

Hamas complained that Israel never fully opened its border crossings with Gaza to permit flows of international aid and fuel into the impoverished territory, which sparked shortages of goods and widespread blackouts.

Israel, which left Gaza in 2005 after a 38-year occupation but still controls its border crossings, says Hamas used the truce to replenish its arsenal with arms smuggled in through dozens of tunnels under the territory's sealed border with Egypt.

With files from the Associated Press