Hamas leaders are warning that their attacks will push beyond Ashkelon, leaving many Israelis to worry that Tel Aviv, too, will soon become a target.
Israel is weighing several military options to counter this threat. They include limited pinpoint ground operations like the one concluded Monday, targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders and operatives, firing back at the sources of rocket fire irrespective of their location in civilian areas and a full-scale land offensive to smash Hamas’ terrorist infrastructure, perhaps even reoccupying Gaza for months on end.
Some Israeli Cabinet ministers favor talking to Hamas and negotiating a long-term cease-fire. The Egyptians also are working behind the scenes on a cease-fire deal that would include a prisoner exchange involving Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held captive in Gaza since a cross-border attack in June 2006.
The Israeli operation in Gaza that concluded Monday was the result of several factors.
In targeting Ashkelon, Hamas had crossed a red line, compelling Israel to respond in kind. But Israel also wanted to break what had become an unacceptable routine equation: Hamas fires intermittently at Israeli targets and, after Israel retaliates, the Islamist organization showers down dozens of rockets to deter the army from harsher measures or retaliating anew.
This allowed Hamas to call the shots and make it appear as though Israel was the aggressor and Hamas was only retaliating.
Last Friday, however, Israel sent ground troops into a sensitive area between Beit Hanoun and the Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza often used as a launching pad for Qassam rockets.
Although limited in scope, it was a much larger Israeli operation than past raids. As the soldiers fought in tough urban conditions, the Israeli Air Force hit rocket workshops and squads, a truck carrying 160 shells, and symbols of Hamas authority, including the offices of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, the deposed Palestinian Authority prime minister.
By the time the troops pulled out Monday morning, an estimated 100 Palestinians had been killed, most of them combatants but civilians as well. Israel lost two soldiers in the fighting.
Despite the civilian death toll, Israel insisted it had targeted only terrorists. The aim of the limited operation, Israeli officials said, was to show Hamas that Israel is capable of exacting a heavy price in terms of personnel and resources for Hamas’ continued rocket fire.
After the Israeli pullback, however, Hamas claimed victory, arguing that its fighters had forced the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to withdraw. To show it was not cowed, Hamas continued firing rockets, including Grad missiles, at Ashkelon.
Now Israel is considering ratcheting up the military pressure on Hamas even further.
Over the weekend, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert authorized the targeting of all Hamas leaders, including Haniyeh.
Another option under discussion would see Israeli artillery batteries fire back at the sites of rocket fire within seconds of every rocket launching. This could cause considerable civilian casualties, since rocket launchers often fire from heavily populated urban areas.
Israel’s deputy prime minister, Haim Ramon, is pushing for this kind of response. He says it would be highly effective and that it is within the bounds of international law.
“The rocket launchers are war criminals, deliberately firing at civilians,” he said. “International law allows the party attacked to fire back at the precise area from which they are shooting.”
On Monday, top Israeli decision makers met with leading jurists for a legal ruling.
Whether or not this controversial tactic is adopted, more sharp ground operations, like the one just concluded, are likely.
If all this fails to deter Hamas, Defense Minister Ehud Barak suggested the next step will be a major ground invasion of Gaza. The question is over exit strategy.
Israeli hard-liners are calling for an operation along the lines of 2002’s Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank. That would put the IDF in control of Gaza and in a position to prevent Hamas rocket fire.
Staying in Gaza, however, would leave Israeli soldiers vulnerable to attack, just as they were during the years of they were in control of the strip and of southern Lebanon. Therefore, the IDF says, the troops should withdraw immediately after dealing Hamas a crippling blow.
Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni have been sending out feelers over whether such an invasion could be followed by a cease-fire monitored by an international force, as happened in Lebanon after the 2006 war.
Would any countries agree to send troops into as dangerous a terrorist hotbed as Gaza?
The chances are remote.
So some in the government, like Labor minister Ami Ayalon, say the focus should be on a long-term cease-fire, even if it means talking to Hamas.
The idea isn’t far-fetched. Hamas long has been signaling that it is ready for a hudna, or temporary cease-fire, with Israel.
Egyptian military intelligence chief Omar Suleiman has been trying to put together a prisoner exchange that would include a long-term cease-fire and the return of Shalit. Hamas leaders see their holding of the Israeli soldier as an insurance policy against Israeli assassination. Should they free him, these leaders would want a guarantee that they would not be targeted.
What does all this mean for the peace process?