With violence surging and diplomacy retreating, the Israelis and Palestinians were lurching dangerously close Sunday to returning to an active state of war.
The weekend's rising toll of deaths and injuries comes on the eve of a visit to the region by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is expected to arrive here Tuesday as part of the Bush administration's efforts to push into fast forward a peace process that has been moving, at best, in slow motion.
The escalation is coming from both sides in the conflict, though each blames the other for ratcheting up the violence. Israel says that Hamas has gone too far by shooting longer-range Katyusha missiles at the coastal city of Ashkelon and peppering other southern towns with Qassam rockets. Hamas, meanwhile, says that its launches come in response to Israel's targeted assassinations.
In some of the worst violence in the Gaza Strip in years, Israel launched an intensive air and ground military operation there on Saturday, killing 63 Palestinians. Israel says most of them were Hamas militants, while Hamas says most of them were civilians. During the operation, Palestinian gunmen killed two Israeli soldiers.
Israel views the attacks on those cities as a move by Hamas to widen the conflict. But Palestinians say Israel is using the attacks as a pretext to launch a larger offensive that it has been planning for months.
Defense analysts in Israel, however, say that the escalation of the past few days, however intense, is not the full-scale offensive on Gaza the Israeli military and political establishment has been discussing, because Israel still hasn't come to a decision about how to deal with the situation.
A poll last week indicated that the majority of Israelis would support seeing their government enter into talks with Hamas in order to reach a cease-fire. But the possibility of doing so seemed to be slipping further away as the death toll rises and missile attacks are reaching farther than before.
"It's clear that there is a limit to Israel's ability to absorb the situation," says Jonathan Spyer, an expert on Middle East Affairs at the Inter-Disciplinary Center in Herzliya. "The launching of Grad [Katyusha] missiles on Ashkelon is an unacceptable escalation. But what are the options for a longer-term solution? One is an attempt to reach a cease-fire, and the other is an extended Israeli military invasion in Gaza."
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will be under pressure not to accept a cease-fire with Hamas, he adds, because of the expectation that Hamas has a "poor track record" and will break it when it chooses. Israel has also at times broken cease-fires when it sees a chance to target a wanted militant.
Moreover, a cease-fire with Hamas, Dr. Spyer points out, probably won't mean that other groups actively involved in launching rockets, such as Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, will abide by it. This, Spyer says, is part of the complication Israel faces in dealing with Hamas: While Hamas controls Gaza, it won't force other groups to comply with its decisions.
"Hamas has never been willing to stop other organizations from attacking Israel. Hamas only accounts for Hamas," Spyer says. Israel, he says, is holding back from launching a total invasion of the Gaza Strip, in part because there doesn't seem to be an exit strategy. One possibility is that Israel would establish a security zone in northern Gaza to be able to stop some of the rocket attacks, but even that couldn't stop all of them.
From Gaza, however, most Palestinians view it differently. The reason for the escalation, says Tawfiq Abu Shabak, who was at the house of mourning for a niece and nephew killed on Saturday – Imad, 17, and Jacqueline, 15 – is because Israel is facing its own internal political problems.
"The Israelis are unifying the Palestinians, in this, and Fatah is part of the struggle for freedom," Mr. Abu Shabak says. "We will keep fighting and resisting until the blood of our children will not go in vain. We call on President Abbas to stop his useless meetings with Olmert, because the Israelis are not seeking peace. These meetings are just for PR's sake."
Indeed, Palestinians called off negotiations with Israel over the weekend.
In the Israeli city of Ashkelon, rockets have hit homes and sent residents to the hospital. Some 12 rockets from Gaza, most of them thought to be Iranian-made Grad rockets, have fallen since Wednesday. It's not the first time the coastal city, 11 miles from Gaza, has been targeted, but prior attacks have been isolated salvos. Last week, the city of 120,000 distributed emergency instructions in case of a rocket attack in Hebrew, Russian, and Amharic.
"It was a powerful explosion. Like you were standing next to a tank,'' said Yitzhak Sharbane as he peered into the hole ripped into the roof of the building where he lives by a rocket.
The family was woken at 5 a.m. by the newly activated rocket-warning alert. Seconds later, the missile slammed into the six-story building as the Sharbane family huddled together in the stairwell two floors below.
On Sunday, Mr. Sharbane came home from work as a truck driver to help comfort a family still struggling with the realization that their city has become part of the Gaza war zone. "This is strange," said his wife, Ruth Sharbane. "We never thought that the rockets could reach us."
Sharbane said that while he supported Israel's retaliatory offensive in Gaza, the army by itself would be hard pressed to stop the weapons flow without reoccupying all of Gaza. Instead, an international force should be deployed in Gaza as peacekeepers.
Shimon Avital, meanwhile, sat in his mini-mart staring at Ashkelon's marina parking lot, where a rocket fell Saturday and shaking his head.
"I think this is going to be a long period of warfare," he said. Israel's army needs to remain in Gaza to keep cities like Ashkelon out of rocket range, he says. "It's a war and war has its price,'' he said. "Until a foreign army comes in to sit there, we have no choice.''