- The Washington Times - Monday, June 12, 2006

TEL AVIV — Israel and Hamas seemed on the brink of abandoning a 17-month calm on Wednesday as Islamic militants lobbed rockets at Israeli towns and Israeli generals reportedly recommended an invasion of Gaza to snuff out the salvos, but officials and analysts think both sides will honor the informal cease-fire.

Hamas and Fatah loyalists showed no such restraint yesterday. Two Palestinians died in internecine Gaza street battles, while gunmen linked to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party ransacked and burned government buildings in Ramallah.

Meanwhile, the Hamas-majority parliament delayed a decision on a measure that would outlaw a referendum. Mr. Abbas backs the referendum, which seeks implicit recognition of a two-state solution.

Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority face growing domestic pressure to launch retaliatory attacks. Seven Palestinians from one family were killed on a Gaza beach by an errant explosive, and the southern Israeli city of Sderot has come under frequent attack by Qassam rockets. So far, political leaders have resisted the temptation.

Attacks on Israel would disrupt Hamas’ effort to consolidate its power after taking over the government in March, said a member of the Hamas-run Cabinet. The government also has struggled with a suspension of international aid to the Palestinian Authority, which has left government employees without pay for at least three months.

“The military escalation is the last thing that the government needs,” said Abdel Rahman Zaidan, the Palestinian minister of public works.

Israelis hope to avoid a risky military gambit that could undermine international support for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s “realignment” plan to uproot settlement in the West Bank.

“What can we do? Reinvade Gaza? We’ve been there already,” said Labor parliament member Efraim Sneh.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said he turned down a recommendation from Israeli generals for a large-scale offensive against the cells that launch the homemade rockets into Israel. His decision is aimed at allowing tempers to cool.

For the first time in months, Hamas’ military wing took responsibility for the rocket salvos, prompting Israeli talk of assassination strikes on senior figures in the organization.

Critics of the government’s policy said Israel should move against rocket foundries in Gaza and against weapons smugglers to weaken a militant group that has used the calm to restock.

But backers of the defense minister said the price — Israeli military casualties, international criticism and a cancellation of the Palestinian referendum — was too high. Even though Israel could justify the offensive, it is likely to strengthen Hamas’ hand against Fatah.

“You can have some short-term gains,” said Yossi Alpher, the former head of Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, but in the long term, “there is no military solution. And it’s not going to change anything.”

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