TEL AVIV — A five-month calm between Israelis and Palestinians appeared to be on the brink of collapse yesterday as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned that he would unleash the army on Gaza militants who have shelled Jewish settlements and communities inside Israel during the past four days.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, struggling to stave off an Israeli assault, reiterated a zero-tolerance pledge for new attacks by the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas, even as mortars and rockets continued to fall on Israeli targets. Hamas said it remained committed to the calm on the condition that Israeli attacks stop.
The worst spike in fighting since Mr. Abbas’ election in January threatens to complicate Mr. Sharon’s landmark withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank, scheduled to start in another month.
Originally envisioned as an orderly operation coordinated with the Palestinian Authority, continued strife could transform it into a violent exit in which Israeli soldiers will be forced to fend off attacks from Palestinian radicals as they evict about 9,000 Jewish settlers.
With pressure mounting for a wide-ranging offensive in Gaza, Mr. Sharon told his Cabinet that he had instructed security officials to take “all measures, without restrictions, in order to stop the wave of terrorism.”
The comments came as soldiers and police geared up to face down a demonstration today by opponents of the withdrawal who have pledged to defy a military closure of the Jewish settlements in Gaza.
Israeli armored divisions massed on Gaza’s border over the weekend, waiting for a green light from the government. Still, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz was quoted by Israel Radio as saying the army would hold off for a few days to give the Palestinian Authority a chance to rein in the militants.
An Israeli sniper yesterday killed Sayid Tzaim, a Hamas military leader from Khan Younis and the eighth militant killed since the Israeli army renewed a policy of targeted assassinations.
But continued Qassam rocket salvos on the Israeli city of Sderot ratcheted up the pressure on Mr. Sharon to unleash the military. Israeli politicians and security officers have insisted that the security forces will not leave Gaza while ducking strikes from Palestinian militants.
Yuval Steinitz, a legislator from Mr. Sharon’s Likud Party, said the pullout would be impossible without conducting a major offensive against militant strongholds reminiscent of Israel’s 2002 invasion of West Bank cities. He warned that time was running out for such a push before the Aug. 17 target date for the evacuation.
“I have been urging the government for one year now to launch a massive security operation to uproot the terrorist infrastructure and to reduce their capacity to fire on the disengagement,” Mr. Steinitz said.
The latest spiral of violence began Tuesday, when a suicide bomber from Islamic Jihad detonated an explosive device outside an Israeli shopping mall in the coastal city of Netanya, killing at least four persons. Israel’s retaliation gave an excuse for Hamas to renew attacks after months of calm.
Mr. Abbas over the weekend responded by using force for the first time against Hamas to stop the rocket attacks. Hamas firebombed an armored Palestinian Authority transport carrier while calling for the resignation of Mr. Abbas’ interior minister.
Egyptian mediators yesterday sought to defuse the standoff as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice scheduled a last-minute trip to the region.
If the mediation effort is overtaken by an Israeli invasion of Gaza, it would mean an end to the truce and a serious blow to Mr. Abbas, said Salah Haider Shafi, a Gaza-based economist. “Once there is an incursion, we are back to square one.”
Amid the tension, Israeli police denied a permit for supporters of Jewish settlers to march from the southern Israeli city of Netivot to Gush Katif, despite a ban on nonresident visitors to the Gaza settlement enclave.
Settler leaders, who want to bring tens of thousands of supporters to confront police even at the price of arrest, hope that the demonstration will put enough political pressure on Mr. Sharon to halt the disengagement.