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With Hamas continuing to pepper the South with rocket and mortar fire Thursday and Israel stepping up its threatening rhetoric, the IDF is likely to respond with small-scale operations, but no outright invasion of the Gaza Strip.
Defense officials said that Defense Minister Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi were fully coordinated with regard to the need for an operation in Gaza - a limited one.
Ashkenazi, who unlike the country's politicians has said very little publicly about the recent escalation of violence in the South, delivered a stern threat to Hamas Thursday and said that Israel would use its "full force" to end the rocket attacks.
"This reality cannot be allowed to continue and we will need to use our full force to hit the terrorist infrastructure and create a new security reality around the Gaza Strip," Ashkenazi said at an air force ceremony near Beersheba.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, meanwhile, appealed directly to Gazans, and in an interview with the Arab satellite station Al Arabiya issued a last minute plea to residents of the Strip to get Hamas to stop the rocket fire.
"Don't let Hamas, which is acting against the values of Islam, put you in danger," he urged. "Stop them. Stop your enemies and ours. Tell them to stop firing on innocent civilians."
Olmert's words came on a day during which some 20 rockets and mortars were fired into the western Negev. On Wednesday, some 60 rockets and mortar shells had pounded the area.
One of Thursday's mortars landed on the Erez Crossing as Palestinian Christian pilgrims were leaving Gaza on their way to Bethlehem for Christmas celebrations. No one was injured, but damage was caused to the crossing.
Ashkenazi's tough comments were echoed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni who, standing next to Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit in Cairo, said simply that "enough is enough."
Hamas, she went on, "needs to understand that Israel's basic desire to live in a tranquil region doesn't mean that Israel is willing to accept ongoing shooting at its population... We cannot accept this situation and the situation will change."
Livni said that Hamas was responsible for the situation in Gaza, and it needed to understand that its decisions carried a price. "Hamas is mistaken if it thinks that internal domestic considerations or the desire for quiet will prevent Israel from responding," Livni said. "When there's shooting, there's a response. Any state would react that way."
Livni held a 90-minute meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, followed by separate meetings with Gheit and Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman.
Israeli diplomatic officials said that Egypt had not presented Livni with anything new, but only repeated their requests for Israeli restraint.
Publicly, Gheit expressed Egyptian concerns that without restraint, Egypt would no longer be able to mediate between Israel and the Gaza factions.
"We can't imagine that we will be able to convince the two parties to return to a truce as long as the heightening confrontation continues," Gheit said.
"We hope for self-restraint and that the two parties apply what they have been implementing in the past six months. The Egyptian goal is to keep the truce and secure it. The real goal is to give a chance for Palestinian-Palestinian reconciliation and for Palestinian-Israeli negotiations," he added.
Gheit said Egypt was not responsible for Hamas's arms buildup, and that Israel should not blame Egypt for it.
Livni infuriated the Egyptians a year ago by saying in the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Egypt's performance on the Gaza border was "awful and problematic," and that the weapons smuggling lowered the chances that pragmatic factions in Gaza and the West Bank would regain control.
Gheit said he didn't know how Hamas had obtained longer range missiles, indicating that they were not smuggled through the tunnels from Sinai into Gaza.
Diplomatic officials in Jerusalem said they did not know what information Gheit was basing himself upon, or where and how he thought the missiles came into Gaza if not via the Sinai.
Meanwhile, defense officials said Thursday that Hamas's decision to escalate the rocket attacks was connected to an internal power struggle in the Palestinian Authority revolving around the end of Mahmoud Abbas's presidential term next month.
According to Hamas, Abbas's term as president will officially come to an end on January 9, and according to the PA constitution, in the absence of elections, the president is supposed to be replaced by the speaker of the parliament, today a Hamas official imprisoned in Israel. Fatah maintains that Abbas's term doesn't end until 2010, and defense officials said Thursday that Abbas was expected to unilaterally extend his term, a move that will likely be met by Hamas opposition.
"Hamas is getting ready for a power struggle with Fatah," a senior defense official explained. "It is in Hamas's interest to enter this power struggle in the middle of a conflict with Israel, since this way it receives the support and sympathy of the Palestinian public."
Despite the continued attacks, Barak decided Thursday to open the Kerem Shalom and Sufa crossings to allow the transfer of humanitarian supplies to the Gaza Strip.
The shipment was originally scheduled to enter Gaza on Wednesday but was postponed due to the rocket fire. The Defense Ministry said the decision was made to permit the transfer after Barak received a number of requests from international organizations.
Diplomatic officials said that while there was broad international condemnation of the Hamas attacks on Israel, there was also a great deal of concern about the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip.
The officials also said that the barrage of rocket and mortar attacks over
the last two days had not been covered that widely in the international press, which is currently focusing on Christmas holiday stories.
Though an argument could be made that this would be a good time for a military operation, because much of the world is currently on vacation and not focusing on the Middle East, others say that because the world has not paid sufficient attention over the last two days to the pounding of the western Negev, any massive IDF attack now would seem inexplicable.