By Jonathan Ferziger and Saud Abu Ramadan
Israeli leaders vowed to escalate military operations against the Gaza Strip after two days of Palestinian rocket attacks and warned Syria that additional cross-border fire would bring a “painful” response.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel won’t “sit idly by” after more than 110 missiles fired from Gaza yesterday caused property damage and injuries in Israeli communities. Defense Minister Ehud Barak raised the prospect of a new ground offensive, the first since Israeli troops withdrew from Gaza in 2009 after a three-week military assault that left more than 1,100 Palestinians dead.
“If we have to re-enter to strike Hamas and provide security for Israeli citizens, we won’t hesitate,” Barak said at an international defense industry conference in Tel Aviv.
Netanyahu will meet today with a number of foreign ambassadors to brief them on the situation in the south and explain Israel’s position, his spokesman Mark Regev said. The army said at least five rockets were fired from Gaza today, a marked drop from the pace of fire during the past two days.
Violence in Gaza increased amid concern about renewed conflict on Israel’s northern border with Syria, its quietest frontier since the 1973 Middle East war. A mortar shell shot from Syria yesterday struck an army post on the Israeli- controlled side of the Golan Heights, causing no injuries. Israeli soldiers responded by firing a missile into Syrian territory, and the government filed a complaint with the United Nations.
“We are closely monitoring what is happening on our border with Syria and there we are also ready for any development,” Netanyahu said at his weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.
Barak said Israeli’s military “has been instructed to prevent” the Syrian conflict “from spilling over into our territory. Additional shelling into Israel from Syria will elicit a tougher response, exacting a higher price from Syria.”
The latest violence in the south was ignited when Palestinian militants fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli patrol along the Gaza Strip border fence on Nov. 10, wounding four soldiers, the army said in an e-mailed statement. The Israeli military responded with tank shelling and air strikes into Gaza, including a direct hit on a rocket-launching squad, killing six and wounding more than 30, according to Ashraf al- Qedra, spokesman for the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza.
“We need to change our response,” Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon said on Army Radio today. “We need to change it until Hamas says ’enough.’”
Barak said Israel holds the Islamic Hamas responsible for the attacks from Gaza and the group will pay a “severe and painful” price for them.
“You can’t rule out a connection between the tensions on the Syrian border and in Gaza,” said Jonathan Spyer, a professor of political science at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. “The Islamic Jihad, which is setting the pace in terms of rocket fire, is a client of Iran and Iran is also a main backer of Syria.”
Israel’s border with Syria has been largely quiet since it repelled an attempt by Syrian forces to reclaim the Golan Heights area it lost to Israel in the 1967 war. Three Syrian tanks entered the Golan demilitarized zone last week, and a Syrian mortar shell landed on Israeli-controlled territory as fighting intensifies between forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad and rebel forces seeking to oust him.
Hamas seized control of Gaza from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party in 2007, ending a partnership government a year after winning parliamentary elections.
Spyer said he didn’t expect Netanyahu to go for a large operation against Gaza before Israeli elections, scheduled for Jan. 22.
“If he can avoid it, he won’t want a ground incursion,” Spyer said by phone. “It doesn’t fit into his pattern of behavior. In contrast to his predecessors, he tries to diffuse the tensions.”
At the same time, he added that “there is always the danger of things spinning out of control.”
Israel, under former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, conducted a three-week assault in Gaza to stop rocket attacks that concluded in January 2009. The Hamas Ministry of Health in Gaza said 1,450 Palestinians were killed during that assault, while Israel puts the number at 1,166. The army said 13 Israelis died in the violence.