Gov't under intense pressure to respond

Officials: Reaction to Kassams will be different, most likely won't be ground op; US, urges restraint.

Kassam pretty cool 224.8 (photo credit: AP)
Kassam pretty cool 224.8
(photo credit: AP)
Hamas crossed the Rubicon Wednesday by firing dozens of Kassam rockets on the western Negev, and the government - especially Defense Minister Ehud Barak - will be under intense public pressure to take strong action to stop the attacks, government officials said Wednesday evening. The officials said Israel's reaction to the latest rocket barrage was likely to be of a different nature than in the past because of growing public disquiet with the government's inability to stop the attacks. The officials added, however, that a large-scale ground operation in Gaza was not likely to be approved, mainly because that was exactly what Hamas expected and was planning for. The officials said Barak, for a variety of reasons, was likely to lead a more aggressive line inside the government than Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. According to this school of thought, Barak was looking at the Defense Ministry as a place where he could "prove himself" and position himself to win the next elections - but in order to do this, he needed to show success in stopping the rocket attacks. On the other side of the coin, the officials said, Olmert was surely coming under both American and European pressure to show restraint. With US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice due here on Tuesday, the US was keen on ensuring that the situation did not "get out of hand," the officials said. The officials did not rule out the possibility that a large-scale response to the attacks would wait until after the Rice visit. Rice's visit is intended to try and stabilize the situation on the Egyptian-Gaza border, as well as to help move the negotiating process with the Palestinians forward. She is expected to arrive the same day that Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman is scheduled to visit, with the focus of both visits likely to be on reaching an arrangement on how to secure the Egypt-Gaza border. The Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, issued a statement Wednesday evening saying Israel would "continue to defend itself against terror attacks from the Gaza Strip." The statement said the firing of rockets by Hamas at Israeli civilians from within populated Palestinian areas constituted "war crimes" that harmed both Israelis and Palestinians. "Hamas's terrorism not only endangers the lives of Israeli and Palestinian civilians, it also endangers peace and stability in the region as a whole," the statement read. Meanwhile, even before Wednesday's barrage, Israeli Ambassador to the US Sallai Meridor said the steady buildup in Hamas's weapons arsenal and persistent rocket attacks were prompting Israel to consider "action" options. "Nobody, basically, is confronting Hamas," Meridor said in a meeting with reporters. He described Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as ineffective and said, "I wish reality was different." Meridor did not specify what steps Israel might take, but he likened Gaza now to southern Lebanon in 2006 before Israel went to war with Hizbullah. AP contributed to this report.