The use of the Hebrew word for holocaust, „shoah”, tends to be used exclusively in Israel to describe the Nazi persecution of Jews.
Palestinian activists routinely claim to be suffering a „shoah” at the hands of Israel, but the Jewish state normally denies any moral equivalence between the suffering of Palestinians today and European jewry under the Nazis.
Matan Vilnai, deputy defence minister, broke that taboo when he used the term „shoah” during interview on Army Radio.
„The more qassam fire intensifies and the rockets reach a longer range, they (the Palestinians) will bring upon themselves a bigger shoah because we will use all our might to defend ourselves,” he said.
His use of the term reflects the febrile atmosphere in Israel where public opinion demands the government does something decisive to stop the daily barrage of rockets fired from Gaza over the border into Israel.
The issue dominates the media, sparking angry protests from Israelis who live within rocket range of Gaza and prompting an intense national debate about whether to negotiate with the Hamas authorities in Gaza.
Israel has lost eleven of its citizens to qassam strikes since the first one was launched in 2003. Many hundreds of Palestinians, mostly militants but civilians as well, have been killed in retaliatory Israeli attacks.
The Israeli government moved quickly to try to defuse the impact of Mr Vilnai’s use of the sensitive term. His office put out a statement later trying to water down the meaning of the word.
„Mr. Vilnai was meaning ‘disaster’,” the statement said. „He did not mean to make any allusion to the genocide.”
The foreign ministry also got involved seeking to downplay the linguistic faux pas.
„Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai used the Hebrew phrase that included the term ‘shoah’ in the sense of a disaster or a catastrophe, and not in the sense of a holocaust,” Arye Mekel, Israel’s foreign ministry spokesman, said.
This was not enough to placate Palestinians who sought to exploit the use of the word.
The tit-for-tat exchanges between militants firing rockets from Gaza and the Israeli armed forces trying to hit them and their commanders continued, with the Palestinian death toll reaching 31 since Wednesday. One Israeli has been killed in that period.
Tens of thousands of Gazans took to the streets to protest the worsening violence on Friday.
„Gaza today faces a real war, a crazy war led by the enemy against our people,” Ismail Haniyeh, one of the most senior Hamas leaders, told a crowd gathered outside the mosque where he attended weekly prayers.
Israel has tried ground offensives into Gaza before to silence the rocket threat but they have failed to deal with the problem once and for all.
Ehud Olmert, Israel’s prime minister, has so far been wary of launching a ground offensive, which could incur heavy casualties and derail US-backed peace talks with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian national authority.