Hamas attack strikes at shaky truce with Israel

Israeli government rules out large military response, as moderate Hamas politicians work to preserve ceasefire.

Israel will not launch a large-scale military operation in response to a Tuesday rocket attack by Hamas, the first that the Islamic group's militant wing has launched since a late November ceasefire.

The Associated Press reports that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came to the decision after an emergency meeting with his security advisors to discuss Israel's options in response to the barrage, which caused no injuries. [Editor's note: The original version gave the incorrect title for Ehud Olmert.]

Two meeting participants said Olmert agreed to allow the army to carry out "pinpoint" operations to halt the rocket fire, but decided against a widespread offensive, essentially continuing current Israeli policy in Gaza. There have been growing calls in military circles for tougher action in Gaza.
The participants spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.

Hamas's attack was launched Tuesday morning along the Gaza-Israel border, Haaretz reports. Hamas claimed it fired more than 80 rockets and mortars into Israel, though senior Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officials told Haaretz they believe the number was far fewer, as they could only locate 10 impact sites. The officials also said that the barrage was cover for a failed attempt by Hamas to kidnap Israeli soldiers.

The New York Times writes that while an IDF spokesman declined to comment on reports of the foiled kidnapping, "he pointed to a statement made [Tuesday] morning by the Hamas military spokesman, Abu Obeideh, who said on Voice of Palestine radio: 'The cease-fire has been over for a long time, and Israel is responsible for that. We are ready to kidnap more and more, and kill more and more of your soldiers.'"

The Times reports that Israeli strikes into Gaza and the West Bank Sunday killed nine Palestinians, most of whom were reported to be militants. But despite Mr. Obeideh's assertion that Hamas's ceasefire with Israel is officially over, the Times reports that other members of Hamas are trying to restore it.

...More moderate members of Hamas in the Palestinian unity government, including Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, said they were making efforts to preserve the cease-fire. And a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Ismail Radwan, stopped short of calling off the cease-fire, saying the actions on Tuesday were "a natural response to Israeli aggression and violations of the truce."

Agence France-Presse writes that a Palestinian Authority spokesman said Tuesday the government was standing by the truce for the moment, while President Mahmoud Abbas called the Hamas attack "an exceptional event that won't last."

But Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff write in an analysis for Haaretz that despite Olmert's hesitation to launch a large-scale offensive, an escalation may be inevitable.

...For years, Israel's response to Palestinian attacks has been based on one thing only: the attacks' results. A successful kidnapping, or a Qassam rocket that causes multiple deaths, will hasten the decision to act.
Olmert is well acquainted with the situation assessment of GOC Southern Command Yoav Galant: that a military confrontation with Hamas is inevitable. The organization's ideology, its ongoing attacks and its military buildup in Gaza all lead to this conclusion. And from Israel's perspective, Galant believes, the sooner the better, before Hamas' military might grows any further.
Meanwhile, the army is preparing, and on a scale that some liken to the preparations preceding the first Lebanon War in 1982. In Israel, such preparations tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies.

AFP also writes that the United States and the European Union called on both sides to abide by terms of the ceasefire.

The US State Department warned Palestinians not to abandon the ceasefire, saying the "pathway to Palestine" and an independent state lies through negotiations, not violence.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana echoed the warning saying the decision by Hamas's armed wing was "very bad news."
"I plead with everybody on both sides to really behave in a constructive manner because there is a window of opportunity in which things that are positive may take place."
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