Israeli Politicians Call for Major Military Action in Gaza

Reporting from Jerusalem – As Palestinian militants tried to forge a tentative cease-fire agreement with Israel on Sunday, pressure was building on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to retaliate for the latest round of violence by launching a major military campaign in the Gaza Strip similar to the 22-day Operation Cast Lead in late 2008.

After visiting hospitalized Israelis who were injured by rocket attacks over the weekend, Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom said Israel should take decisive military action to discourage future Palestinian strikes.

“The deterrence of Cast Lead has exhausted itself,” he said. “We're not ruling out the possibility of a ground operation.”

Opposition lawmakers also urged Netanyahu to cripple the infrastructure of Hamas, the Islamist group that controls theGaza Strip. “You must use force against terrorism,” said opposition leader Tzipi Livni, whose Kadima party was in power during Operation Cast Lead.

The renewed fighting began Thursday when gunmen infiltrated Israel and killed six civilians and two soldiers near Eilat. Since then, Israeli airstrikes against militants in Gaza, who were blamed by Israel for the initial attack, have killed more than two dozen people. Rocket attacks against southern Israeli towns have killed one person and wounded more than 20.

Hamas officials announced Sunday that they had crafted an agreement, with help from Egypt, to end the fighting. But it was unclear whether all Palestinian factions had accepted the pact, and at least one group publicly rejected it, according to an Israeli media report. Hamas has had difficulty enforcing such cease-fires in the past.

A spokesman for the Israeli government declined to say whether it was engaged in cease-fire negotiations.

The cycle of violence continued Sunday, albeit at a slower pace than in previous days. Militants fired about half a dozen rockets at southern Israeli towns, damaging an empty schoolhouse in Beersheba. Israel responded with two airstrikes, reportedly killing one person.

With more than 80 rockets having been fired into Israel from Gaza since Thursday, public pressure is rising for Netanyahu's government to take action.

But some warned against another large-scale military campaign, saying the one in 2008 failed to dislodge Hamas from power and instead led to a groundswell of international criticism over Israel's use of deadly force. More than 1,200 Palestinians were killed in the operation.

“Sending ground forces into Gaza is pointless,” former Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna told Israel Radio. “It will not achieve our objectives and will only get the world against us.”

Even if the reported cease-fire does not defuse the standoff, many experts expressed skepticism that Israel would opt for a ground offensive. Instead, they said, the military is likely to bomb selected militant strongholds and attempt to assassinate top leaders.

The recent diplomatic strain with Egypt's interim government has narrowed Israel's ability to launch another military campaign, analysts said.

In 2008, then-President Hosni Mubarak cooperated with Israel's offensive by sealing off Egypt's border. The move prevented Gaza residents from fleeing the violence and brought Mubarak wide criticism from his own people and other Arab governments.

The new Egyptian government has established closer ties with Hamas while Cairo's relations with Israel have deteriorated.

On Saturday, Israel apologized to Egypt for accidentally killing three Egyptian soldiers last week while pursuing gunmen after the Eilat attack. The government remains anxious about making moves that might further antagonize Cairo, according to Yoram Meital, chairman of Ben-Gurion University's Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy.

“Israel's ability to make a major campaign against Hamas is limited by this new strategic situation between Israel and Egypt,” he said. “It's a huge dilemma for Israel.”

Some suspect Hamas militants are exploiting the strains between Israel and Egypt. That may explain why Hamas, which has generally discouraged rocket attacks against Israel since the 2008 military operation, announced Saturday that it had resumed its strikes.

At the same time, Gaza-based political analyst Fathi Sabbah said, Hamas has a strong incentive to stop the fighting.

“It's not in Hamas' interest to get back into the cycle of violence with Israel,” he said, noting that the militant group's leaders are benefiting from the recent improvements in Gaza's economy. “Hamas has built up a good economic infrastructure in Gaza. It makes heaps of money. It doesn't want to lose it all.”

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Special correspondent Ahmed Aldabba in the Gaza Strip contributed to this report.

© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services