Israel Weighing Response to Gaza Rocket Fire, Hamas Declarations

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israel on Wednesday was considering its response to rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, a reported attempt to abduct more Israeli soldiers, and Hamas' declaration that a five-month old period of calm was over.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was holding security consultations on Wednesday to discuss Israel's reaction to the attack as tensions mounted over the events.

On Tuesday -- Israel's Independence Day -- Palestinian terrorists aimed a barrage of rockets at southern Israeli communities. Palestinians boasted of launching more than 80 kassam rockets and mortars from sites in both the northern and southern ends of the Gaza Strip.

The army said it counted eight launches but found only two rockets inside Israel. Palestinians launched two more rockets at Israel on Wednesday, the army said.

Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack and said it was in retaliation for the deaths of nine Palestinians in clashes with Israel over the weekend. (Israel says seven of the Palestinians were armed gunmen.)

This was the first time since the ceasefire agreement last November that Hamas claimed responsibility for launching a rocket attack.

Regardless of the Gaza "ceasefire" agreement, Palestinians have launched some 230 rockets at Israel since November -- at least 178 of which have landed inside Israel, the army said. Some analysts say that although Hamas did not claim responsibility for launching those attacks, it was ultimately behind them.

Abu Obeida, a spokesman for the military wing of Hamas, told the Voice of Palestine radio that the ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip had been over for "a long time" and that their "strikes" would continue. "We are ready to kidnap more and more, and kill more and more of your soldiers," he said.

Israeli media quoted security sources as saying that the rocket attacks were intended as a diversion for a cross-border raid to abduct Israeli soldiers. The army would only confirm that it had thwarted a terrorist attack.

Last week, Palestinian legislators told Palestinian media they had discussed the idea of abducting more Israeli soldiers to use as bargaining chips for the release of thousands of Palestinians jailed in Israel for security offenses.

The abduction of Corporal Gilad Shalit in a cross-border attack last year sparked a major Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip, but media reports on Wednesday suggested that Israel would not launch a major offensive at this time.

The Hamas attack on Tuesday has been compared to Hizballah's raid of last summer, when it launched a diversionary rocket attack as cover for a dash into Lebanon, where it snatched two Israeli soldiers. Both are still missing.

Deputy Defense Minister Efraim Sneh said in separate radio interviews that Israel had "no interest in escalation" but in "doing what is necessary to reduce as much as possible the level of terrorism."

Israel would mount a large-scale operation in Gaza, only "when it is clear that the benefit is greater than the damage that will result," he said.

The Israeli army wants to carry out "pinpoint" operations against terrorist leaders in the Gaza Strip as well as the terrorist infrastructure there, the Jerusalem Post reported on Wednesday.

Analysts Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff wrote in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz on Wednesday that a military confrontation between Israel and Hamas is inevitable.

They noted that Yoav Galant, the head of the Israeli army's southern command, has said that Hamas' ideology, its ongoing attacks and military buildup lead to that conclusion. Galant also believes that it would be better to strike Hamas sooner rather than wait for it to gain any more military strength, the analysts noted.

The Israeli army is preparing for a confrontation, and in Israel, "such preparations tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies," Harel and Issacharoff said.

According to the Reuters news agency, Egyptian security officials have met with Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists, urging them to restore calm so Israel won't have an excuse to launch a military operation in the Gaza Strip.

But former Hamas P.A. Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar said on Wednesday that the Palestinians would continue to "battle the Jews until the land is liberated from their grip." He said the Jews have no historic or religious right to the land.

Al-Zahar was quoted on Israel Radio as saying that after the declaration of the first period of calm with Israel two years ago, and even after Hamas assumed power in the Palestinian government, it did not stop recruiting and arming new members.

P.A. Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah faction joined a unity government with Hamas two months ago, said the attack on Tuesday was a one-time event.

Speaking in Rome on Tuesday, where Abbas also met with Pope Benedict XVI, Abbas called on Israel to exercise "self-control" to prevent an escalation.

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