JERUSALEM — Israel’s military engaged on two fronts Monday, exchanging fire across its northern border with Syria and its southern border with Gaza as its leaders warned that the military was prepared to “escalate on all fronts.”
An Israeli tank fired shells into Syria, scoring a “direct hit,” according to the military, on the site where mortar rounds had been launched into Israel that morning.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that Syrian rebels and government forces had exchanged fire in the village of Bir Ajam, about half a mile from the Israeli border. But it couldn’t confirm whether the outgoing mortar fire toward Israel had come from Syrian army tanks there. Israeli officials have maintained that the tank fire was a deliberate provocation by the Syrian military.
There have been at least seven cases in the last year of Syrian violence spilling over Israel’s borders.
Israeli Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon said Israel had complained about the previous incidents to the United Nations and had warned Syria against testing its borders.
"We sent verbal messages,” he said. “This didn’t help. So . . . for the first time, we sent a physical message. If the message was understood, good. If the message was not understood, we will need to send other messages of the kind."
Despite the strong rhetoric, Israeli leaders are hesitant to open a new front in the north, Israeli defense officials said.
“Israel could find itself in the difficult situation it has feared for some time; that is, fighting on two fronts; in the north and south, at the same time,” an Israel Defense Forces official in northern Israel told McClatchy. “We have prepared for this eventuality, as we prepare for any situation. But it is not a situation we want to find ourselves in.”
Israel’s military was much more confident in measures that could be taken in Gaza, he added, than it was in those in the north against Syria.
“Syria is an unknown quantity,” he said. “Those fighting in Syria don’t know who they are fighting against all of the time. We don’t want to become entrenched in the Syrian civil war.”
In Gaza, however, Israel is prepared to use a number of tactics, which – according to military analysts – include assassinating top Hamas leaders, targeting airstrikes on Hamas government buildings and cutting off the coastal territory from supplies.
"Under my instruction, the IDF . . . is exploring the possibilities of increasing the response to Hamas and the other terror groups, and we will hit the terror groups at an ever-growing pace," Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said. "If we are forced to go back into Gaza in order to hit Hamas and restore calm, we will not hesitate to do so."
In another indication that Israel could be preparing an offensive in Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened foreign ambassadors Monday in what was perceived as a preemptive diplomatic appeal.
Four years ago, the international community condemned Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, accusing Israel of using unnecessary force in Gaza in a three-week operation that left more then 13,000 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.
"None of their governments would accept a situation like this," Netanyahu said Monday. "As the prime minister of Israel, I am not prepared to accept such a situation, and we will take action to stop this."
An Israeli military spokesman said that more than 110 missiles had been fired into Israel in the last 72 hours. Israel has responded with airstrikes on targets across the coastal Gaza Strip. Six Palestinians, including four civilians, have been killed.
"We will need to toughen our response until Hamas says ‘enough’ and ends the firing," Yaalon told Army Radio.
Hamas leaders called a meeting of various militant groups in Gaza on Monday evening to discuss a possible cease-fire. Hamas officials in Gaza told McClatchy that Egyptian officials had attempted to negotiate a cease-fire but that militant groups in Gaza disagreed over the conditions.
Hamas leaders might be emboldened by a recent warming of relations with Arab nations. Earlier this month, Qatar and Bahrain opened diplomatic relations with the militant Islamist group, in a gesture that’s sure to open trade between Gaza and the Persian Gulf countries. Hamas also has enjoyed a warming of relations with Egypt since the victory by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s June presidential election.
"War against Gaza is no longer a picnic," Youssef Rizqa, an adviser to Hamas member and Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, wrote in the newspaper Felesteen. Calling Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi a safety net for Gaza, Rizqa added that the Egyptians no longer would aid an Israeli military invasion of Gaza by closing the Rafah border crossing.