ISRAEL appeared to be on the brink of mounting a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip last night, after Palestinian militants in the enclave fired a rocket at the Jerusalem area in a surprise display of reach that raised the stakes of a crisis threatening to destabilise the Middle East.
• Hamas confirm attack against Jerusalem; Israeli police reported no immediate information on whether the rocket had hit the city
• Egyptian PM visits Gaza Strip
• Three days of fighting between Israel and Palestine
• Clashed continue despite ceasefire promise
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was conferring last night with his defence minister, Ehud Barak, and the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, over whether to launch the ground attack as a follow-up to relentless and punishing Israeli air strikes, aimed at degrading the rocket-launching capabilities of the militant Hamas movement and other groups in the Strip.
Israeli military vehicles brought tanks to the border with Gaza and carried in weapons, fuel and water to the edge of the Strip in a scene reminiscent of the prelude to the devastating incursion of Gaza in 2008, also touted as a campaign that would end rocket attacks.
The army yesterday called up 16,000 reservists for use in an invasion. Army spokeswoman Yoav Mordechai said: “The forces are arrayed for the continuation of the mission and for the possibility of a ground operation.”
Mr Netanyahu told reporters the Israeli army was continuing to hit Hamas hard and was ready to expand the operation into Gaza.
Last night, ministers were asked to endorse the call-up of up to 75,000 reservists.
The Israeli military operation, dubbed Operation Pillar of Cloud, began on Wednesday, when an Israeli missile assassinated Hamas military wing chief Ahmed Jabari, breaking an Egyptian-brokered calm that was setting in after weeks of escalation.
The fighting has paralysed life on both sides of the border, killing 23 Palestinians and wounding 250. Three Israelis have been killed, victims of a rocket attack on Thursday on the southern town of Kiryat Malachi, and nearly a million citizens of southern Israel have been forced to shelters.
Throughout Gaza, the Israeli strikes have made it unsafe to go outside, some residents said. “The kids are hearing very big explosions. I have nothing to tell them except, God willing, it will be safe, there will be a ceasefire,” said Raed Atamneh, a resident of the border town of Beit Hanoun.
The firing of the rocket towards Jerusalem stunned Israelis a day after they were jolted by a missile that reached the Tel Aviv area. Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, is 75km from the Gaza border and was thought to be beyond range of the rocket squads.
Sirens went off in Jerusalem and witnesses said they saw a stream of smoke in the suburb of Mevasseret Zion. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the missile landed in an open area near Gush Etzion, a group of settlements south of the city.
The spokesman for Hamas’s military wing, Abu Obeida, said his group had fired a long-range rocket at Jerusalem: “We are sending a short and simple message. There is no security for any Zionist on any inch of Palestine, and we plan more surprises.”
Menachem Klein, a dovish political scientist, predicted there would be a ground operation in Gaza, warning that it would be “a humanitarian disaster”.
Mr Klein also claimed Mr Netanyahu’s decision-making was not divorced from parliamentary elections due on 22
Hopes were soon dashed that the visit to Gaza earlier yesterday of Egyptian prime minister Hisham Kandil could help to move towards a de-escalation.
Mr Kandil, together with Hamas’s Gaza prime minister, Ismail Haniya, toured Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. Reports said a man rushed towards the two leaders holding up the body of a four-year-old boy who Hamas said was killed in an Israeli strike.
Fighting back tears, Mr Kandil said the Israeli operation must end. “What I saw today and the hospital, the wounded, the martyrs, the boy whose blood is still on my hands and clothes, is something you can’t keep silent about.”
The Israeli operation has outraged public opinion in Egypt, whose government is ruled by the Moslem Brotherhood group that is the ideological inspiration for Hamas.
In Cairo, President Mohammed Morsi termed the Israeli operation a “blatant aggression against humanity”, and added that Cairo “would not leave Gaza on its own”.
Last night, a spokesman said the United Nations Secretary-General has called on Hamas to end its rocket attacks , while urging Israeli leaders to exercise the maximum restraint.
A spokesman said Ban Ki-moon “is extremely concerned about the continued violence in Gaza and Israel, and deeply worried by the rising cost in terms of civilian lives”.
Mr Ban’s spokesman, Martin Nesirky, added: “He urgently appeals to all concerned to do everything under their command to stop this dangerous escalation and restore calm.
“Rocket attacks are unacceptable and must stop at once. Israel must exercise maximum restraint. A new cycle of bloodshed will make neither Israelis nor Palestinians more secure. Nor will bloodshed open the door to negotiations that could achieve the two-state solution necessary to end such violence permanently.”
However, Mr Netanyahu enjoys strong domestic support for that course. Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, of the opposition Labour party, said: “We must not stop until those in the Strip understand there has been a change in the rules of the game and Israel will no longer agree to the ritual of firing, ceasefire and then more firing.”
WHAT THE MEDIA ARE SAYING
Media outlets in Israel and Palestine react in contrasting ways to the violence:
The expressions the Israeli government used to cover its aggression on the Gaza Strip focused on military “deterrence” and regaining it. It didn’t include even a single reference to peace, or even any consideration for the existence and national aspirations of the Palestinian people.
Steadfast Gaza has no shield, but is armed with strong faith… It has just started writing its statement of victory.
Too many in the international community not only do nothing to stop terrorists … from targeting innocent Israeli civilians, they also refuse to recognise Israel’s basic right to protect its citizens.
Former Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin: “The objectives of Operation Pillar of Defence are measured and have been cautiously drafted: to restore Israeli deterrence opposite Hamas by hitting hard at the Palestinian terror organisations in Gaza and depriving them of the ability to use their strategic array of long-range rockets.”