Israel girds for Gaza assault as U.S. calls for peace talks

JERUSALEM — Palestinian militants in Gaza fired rockets deep into Israel Thursday, as the Israeli military said it was being drawn into a broader confrontation with militants in Gaza.

Israel Defense Forces officers told McClatchy that if the violence persists, Israel could be drawn into a large-scale operation in Gaza.

"Nobody wants to see another Cast Lead," said one high-ranking official from Israel's Southern Command, which oversees Gaza. He was referring to Israel's punishing 22-day Gaza offensive, which commenced in December 2008. "The region is a big mess right now. Everything is unpredictable, and it could turn against us quickly."

The Israeli official, like others, spoke anonymously because he wasn't authorized to speak on the record.

IDF officials said that the spike in violence along the Gaza border was probably unrelated to Wednesday's bombing in Jerusalem, which killed British tourist Mary Jane Gardner, 59, and injured more than 30 others.

On Thursday, Palestinian rockets hit closer to large Israeli cities than in previous attacks. One rocket landed near the town of Yavne, approximately 12 miles from Tel Aviv, Israel's largest city. Israeli officials for years have warned that militants had smuggled in long-range rockets capable of hitting urban areas that had been out of reach.

Israeli aircrafts have been pounding the Gaza Strip with air strikes, hitting at known military installations and what they said were rocket-launching sites.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who arrived in Israel Wednesday, said that the violence could stall efforts made by the U.S. to pressure Israeli and Palestinian leaders to restart peace talks.

Gates called Wednesday's bombing "a horrific terrorist attack." Ahead of his trip, U.S. officials said the White House hoped to convince Israelis that restarting the peace process would serve their best interest due to regional unrest.

"(Gates) will make the general argument that ... the Israelis have a very deep strategic interest in getting out in front of the wave of populism that's sweeping the region," a U.S. official said, speaking anonymously because he wasn't authorized to speak on the record. "Showing real progress on the peace track with the Palestinians would put them in a much better position for where the region's likely to be in six months or a year from now."

Israeli officials said they're aware of the risks of starting another operation in Gaza. Recent uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya have focused on domestic politics and economics, but the focus could be deflected to Israel.

"With instability in their own fronts countries like Syria or Egypt could chose to turn attention to Israel to distract from their own problems," said an official from Israel's Foreign Ministry. He added that politicians in Israel could not, however, choose to ignore domestic calls for stronger action to be taken against Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed some of those calls in a speech Wednesday. He stated the Islamist Hamas group that controls the Gaza was behind the rocket attacks, and "that responsibility has a price."

"We will act forcefully, responsibly and wisely in order to maintain the quiet," Netanyahu said.

Writing in Israel's largest Hebrew daily, Yediot Ahronot, military affairs columnist Alex Fishman said the army is pushing plans for a larger assault.

"The army is pushing for an escalation," Fishman wrote. "The military (is seeking) to restore its power of deterrence."

"In the army's view ... if we don't act today, we will pay the price of a gradual escalation up until the arrival of the all-out clash."

Israeli officials said that for the time being, the IDF was likely to rely on air strikes to try to stem the rocket attacks. Netanyahu flew to Russia Thursday morning, and isn't scheduled to return until the weekend, when he's expected to review the situation in the south.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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