Hamas Attacks

Large Israeli Offensive in Gaza Looms After Hamas Rocket Attacks

Politicians and foreign diplomats suspect Israel is contemplating a big Gaza offensive, perhaps an invasion, after a weekend of missile and rocket attacks by Hamas. But Netanyahu may be hamstrung by a lack of international support, reports Dan Ephron.

11.13.12 9:45 AM ET

Members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party are urging him to take revenge on the Islamic Hamas group in Gaza after a weekend of missile and rocket attacks that wounded several Israelis and caused damage to homes.

In radio talk shows and TV interviews from the site of the attacks, some of the politicians called for a reprising of the three-week assault on Gaza in 2008–09 known as Cast Lead that killed more than a thousand Palestinians.

The expanding violence is being viewed here as a sign of Hamas’s increasing confidence—and also as evidence of Israel’s diminished deterrence since Cast Lead, an almost sacred security concept among Israelis.

It also is testing Israel’s ability to contend with simultaneous hostilities on two fronts. For a second straight day, Israeli tanks fired shells into Syria in response to errant mortar fire, scoring a direct hit on a Syrian artillery battery Monday.

And yet, with Israeli elections looming and a dwindling list of foreign leaders whom Netanyahu can rely on for support, the prime minister has only limited options for dealing with the attacks in Gaza, according to analysts.

“There’s a big gamble in hitting Hamas too hard, especially with a ground operation” said Amos Harel, the military affairs analyst for the daily Haaretz newspapers. “It’s the kind of thing that you know how to get into but don’t know how you get out of,” he told The Daily Beast.

The latest round of hostilities began Saturday with a missile strike on an Israeli jeep patrolling near the Gaza border that wounded four soldiers. Israel responded with tank and artillery shells, killing five Palestinians, according to hospital sources in Gaza.

The escalation continued through Monday, when at least a dozen rockets slammed into Israeli communities around the Gaza Strip, causing no casualties but sending residents scurrying to bomb shelters in the town.

Israelis who live in a radius around Gaza have suffered from rocket attacks since even before Hamas gained power in the Strip in 2007. In the run-up to Israel’s Jan. 22 election, politicians have been campaigning in the area in large numbers.

“There is a real need for a widespread operation with the aim of removing the threat hanging over the heads of residents of the south,” lawmaker Ofir Akunis of Likud told Israel Radio on Monday.

He said a large Israeli offensive in Gaza was “only a matter of time.”

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Netanyahu, in a speech before some 50 ambassadors, vowed to “act to stop the rocket fire.” An official in his office said the address was meant to “prepare the world” for Israel’s retaliation.

“If an alarm is sounded, people in southern Israel—1 million people—have 15 seconds to find shelter. I don’t know if any of your governments will accept this reality. I cannot accept this,” he told the diplomats, who had gathered in the southern town of Ashkelon.

“The world needs to understand that Israel has the right and duty to defend its citizens.”

The remarks left some of the diplomats feeling that Netanyahu is on the verge of ordering an invasion of Gaza.

But others pointed out the ways in which Netanyahu was constrained. He could not count on the support of European countries for a large-scale attack. Even President Obama might criticize him, depending on the scale of the operation. And he would have to take into account the possibility that Israel’s already fraught relations with Egypt would deteriorate further.

Israel suffered prolonged international criticism after its 2008 operation in Gaza, including a 600-page U.N. report that accused the Jewish state of systematically destroying Gaza’s infrastructure and deliberately targeting civilians.

Harel, the military analyst, said Netanyahu also would have to consider the possibility that Hamas would use its long-range missiles to hit Tel Aviv during such an offensive—marking the first time Palestinians in Gaza target the country’s metropolitan center.

Harel said defense officials are certain Hamas has missiles capable of reaching Tel Aviv, though the group has so far refrained from using them.