Israel prepares for Hamas clash
By Tobias Buck in Jerusalem
Published: December 26 2008 19:15 | Last updated: December 26 2008 19:15

Israel and the Islamist Hamas group are preparing for a sharp military 
escalation in the days ahead, amid rising expectations that Israeli forces will 
launch an assault on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip but refrain from all-out 

After days of belligerent rhetoric from Israeli leaders, Ehud Olmert on 
Thursday issued a direct appeal to the 1.5m Palestinians living in the Gaza 
Strip. In an interview with an Arab television station the outgoing Israel 
prime minister urged Gazans to turn against Hamas and force an end to the 
recent barrage of rocket and mortar attacks on nearby Israeli towns: "Could I 
allow more missiles against the residents of Israel? More strikes at children 
and civilians and do nothing? Certainly not . . . I say to you in a last-minute 
call: Stop it. Stop it. You the citizens of Gaza, you can stop it."

Hamas said on Friday that "nobody wants killing and destruction, including us". 
However, Israel said Gaza-based militants had fired at least 20 mortars at 
Israel since Thursday. Reports from the Gaza Strip said that two Palestinian 
girls were killed and four injured on Friday, when a projectile aimed at Israel 
misfired and exploded on the Gaza side of the border.

Israel on Friday opened the border crossings into Gaza to let in limited 
supplies of flour, grain, sugar and other goods. The crossings have been open 
only sporadically since a ceasefire agreed between the two sides started 
unravelling early last month. As a result, the 1.5m Palestinians living in the 
crowded territory have experienced some of the worst shortages of fuel, power, 
food and other supplies since Hamas took control of the strip in June 2007. 

Mr Olmert, who will leave office following an early general election in 
February, is to consult cabinet colleagues and advisers on Sunday on what 
course to take. He is under intense pressure both from within the government 
and from the rightwing opposition to order a military offensive against Gaza. 
Until recently, the prime minister seemed reluctant to follow the advice of his 
hawkish critics, possibly out of concern for the expected high casualties and 
anticipating a negative response around the world. 

Over the past days, however, Israeli political and military leaders have 
increasingly presented an attack on Gaza as inevitable. Gabi Ashenazi, the 
chief of staff of the Israel Defence Forces, said on Thursday that "this 
reality cannot be allowed to continue and we will need to use our full force to 
hit the terrorist infrastructure".

Israeli media reported on Friday that the army was preparing for a "limited" 
operation in the Gaza Strip, combining air strikes and small-scale incursions.

The conflict with Hamas has also increasingly come to dominate the early phase 
of the election campaign, which will last until polling day on February 10. 

As the official in charge of any military operation in Gaza, Ehud Barak, the 
defence minister and leader of the centre-left Labour party, is perhaps under 
the greatest pressure. His party is trailing badly in the polls, and the 
government's hesitation has left him exposed to accusations of weakness and 
dithering. Yet, he has also most to lose politically from a poorly executed or 
indecisive military strike.
Most polls predict an election victory for the right-wing Likud party.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008

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