TEL AVIV — At least 11 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip in less than 24 hours, with the surge in violence yesterday likely to be a mere prelude to a wide offensive against Hamas militants in the coastal territory.
The escalation comes after Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said a “broad” push in Gaza — requiring large numbers of troops and a sustained incursion into Gaza — is only a matter of time.
Encouraged by the muted response to its purported attack in Syria and the declaration of Gaza as a hostile entity, Israel is increasingly confident, analysts say, that such an incursion would be met with understated international reaction rather than blanket condemnation.
The current violence, which included the assassination of several members of Gaza’s Army of Islam militia, was condemned by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas while participating in diplomatic talks at the United Nations.
A spokesman for Hamas, meanwhile, said that Israel would pay a “heavy price” for the violence.
Israel has said that its patience is growing thin with the continued rocket fire from northern Gaza over the border into nearby Israeli cities like Sderot, and a flow of more sophisticated arms into Gaza that could pose new threats.
Despite the expectations for an all-out push into Gaza, Israel isn’t likely to give the order until after the U.S.-sponsored regional peace conference so as not to divert attention and weaken Mr. Abbas in the eyes of his constituents.
“The Israelis are trying to see what they can achieve from the peace talks. But if there is a massive attack with a lot of casualties, they may not be able to hold back. Going in big right now will make it more difficult for Washington to back Israel,” said Meir Javedanfar, a Tel Aviv-based Middle East analyst.
The threatened offensive could be triggered by a Palestinian attack from Gaza with higher-than-usual casualties, but it may hinge on a more mundane casus belli. Israel’s objective will be to destroy as much militant infrastructure as possible, including arresting and killing Palestinian operatives, said Gidi Grinstein, the president of the Reut Institute, a Tel Aviv-based think tank.
Mr. Grinstein said the refrain from hitting Palestinian government offices in Gaza indicates that Israel is giving the Hamas regime a chance to establish law and order despite pledges that it won’t create security for Israel. At the same time, the stepped-up pressure on Gaza, both economically and militarily, is understood by the international community.
Among Palestinians, the escalating violence in Gaza is also being seen as a portent of much worse developments to come.
“The situation can be only described as extremely negative and highly volatile in the whole region,” said an editorial in the Al Quds newspaper. “A miracle can only spare our region from an imminent disaster.”