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A dozen Gazans have been killed in a series of IDF ground and air attacks over the past 72 hours.
On Monday, six Hamas operatives were killed in an IAF strike on their car; on Tuesday, three Islamic Jihad gunmen and two children were killed; and before dawn Wednesday another senior Hamas terrorist was killed.
The recent escalation stems from a number of factors, the most significant of which is Israel's new defense minister, Ehud Barak, who, with only two months on the job, has given the army a longer leash in combating terrorism in the Gaza Strip.
Barak has said in closed-door meetings that he does not believe Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas will succeed in gaining control over the Strip. Barak has also expressed scepticism regarding the possibility of reaching an agreement through the ongoing talks between Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Unlike his predecessor, Amir Peretz, who was a strong proponent of the policy of restraint vis-Ã -vis the Kassam rocket fire from Gaza, Barak has ordered the IDF to take a tougher stance in responding to the attacks and has allowed the IDF to take greater risks when operating inside the Strip.
Where Peretz would have held back the green light for an air strike that could end in civilian casualties, Barak is more inclined to say yes. He has also ordered the army to use additional and riskier intelligence-collecting methods when preparing for targeted killings and strikes against Kassam rocket squads.
The IDF's Southern Command is under orders to use all available defensive and offensive measures to prevent the rocket attacks, and has carved out something of a "security zone" two kilometers into Gaza, the depth it has been authorized by Barak and Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi to operate within.
According to military sources, the relatively high number of deaths from IDF strikes this past week is also due to chance and the defense establishment's newfound ability to quickly "close circles" - military jargon for translating and utilizing real-time intelligence in immediate operations.
Around 160 Palestinian gunmen have been killed since the beginning of the year. In the past three months, there have been close to 80 IDF operations, some covert, inside the Gaza Strip.
At the moment, the army is holding back from initiating a large-scale operation into Gaza, despite intelligence indicating that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are smuggling unprecedented amounts of weaponry into Gaza. In the end, however, OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant's assumption is that there will be a need for an operation in the Strip to curb the Hamas military buildup.
Galant does not believe that the United States, Egypt or Europe will succeed in stopping Hamas and getting the terror group to lay down its arms. In the end, the job will have to be done by Israel.