A day after Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, called for a regional peace conference with Arab states, his defence minister said his forces had received authorisation to begin new military actions in Gaza.
|Israel says rockets continue to be fired by|
Palestinian fighters in Gaza [AP]
Amir Peretz said Israeli intelligence indicated that Hamas, which leads the Palestinian government, was rearming and planning "terrorist" attacks.
The Israel military has said that it has finalised preparations for incursions it says are to tackle the threat of Qassam rockets fired from Gaza at Israeli towns.
The Israeli media quoted the military as saying that between last November, when a ceasefire deal was agreed, and the end of last month, 185 rockets had been fired, 152 of which reached Israeli territory.
On the diplomatic front, Israel is reaching out to Arab states such as Saudi Arabia - but it has refused to deal with the new Palestinian unity government.
Hamas has so far refused to recognise Israel's existence and has reiterated the right of Palestinians to resist the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.
Reservist Brigadier General Tzika Fogel says such conditions of attrition leave the Jewish state no choice but to reoccupy Gaza to prevent a future war and crush Hamas once and for all.
He says Hamas is building up a Hezbollah-style military capacity and claimed that Western and regional countries would support an offensive to remove it.
"Hamas is working towards the point that they will be like Hezbollah. At that point they will start the war and it will not be good for Israel. We can't let them start the war. We will lose a lot of respect," he said.
"The last thing the West wants is for Hamas to have its own country. It will be an Al Qaeda zone. So Israel, the Arab countries and the free world all want us to begin a war and win it."
Fogel, a former Israeli army second-in-command for the southern territories who says he is regularly called up for active duty as a reservist, believes that the Israeli military has completed its preparations and is ready to reoccupy the Gaza Strip - except Gaza City - for up to six months.
He says the invasion of the area could begin as early as April 15.
"Hamas is a part of real Islamism. It's a threat to Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon and they want that we finish the power of Hamas in Gaza"
"It will not be before April 15 because that's the end of [the Jewish holiday of] Passover, and to be on the safe side it will not be after June 15, because we want it to be finished before the winter."
"We have 200,000 Israelis living in fear of attack. Their towns are getting more and more like bunkers. But the Palestinians don't really want to hit us with their rockets.
"They have been using the last four months just to train their people, not to damage the Israeli side."
In recent days, Israeli media quoted military intelligence reports that Hamas was rearming with advanced weaponry and boosting its defences by building tunnels and booby-trapping several incursion points.
But the Israeli military has declined to comment on Fogel's remarks.
A spokeswoman said: "This officer has retired and has nothing to do with the army any more. We don't want to talk about anything he said."
Diplomacy versus war
For their part, Palestinian officials have said that any military strike into the Gaza Strip would indicate the credibility of Israel's claims to be a country seeking peace.
Khaled Abu Hillel, spokesman for the Palestinian Interior Ministry, said: "We have a unity government that unites the Palestinian people behind a single programme. Any step Israel takes against this government shows that they are neither ready for nor want peace".
|Israel has refused to talk to the Hamas-led |
Palestinian government [AFP]
Palestinian analysts have also said an Israeli invasion of Gaza could wreck chances for a peace deal with the Arab world and prompt international criticism.
Jehad Hamad, a professor of political sociology at Al Azhar University in Gaza City, said: "The Mecca agreement showed that Hamas is willing to be part of a rational Palestinian programme.
"Israel will take a hard line against this. But if they invade there would be a hugely negative reaction internationally. It will not help them make a deal with the Arab world, which has made it clear it wants peace."
But Fogel said Israel would invade regardless of the potential damage to its image.
"If Israel initiates the war, the world will give us the same time window and expectation as they gave us at the beginning of the second Lebanon war," he said.
"There's no other choice. Hamas is a part of real Islamism. It's a threat to Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon and they want that we finish the power of Hamas in Gaza. They can't say it but they do want it."
Fogel said previous campaigns against Hamas failed and the Israeli military would need to employ new tactics against them.
"It’s like a big swamp – you have to dry it. You have to go house by house everywhere. We cannot simply repeat what we have done before – it leads to nothing."
Not everyone in Israel, however, believes that Hamas is looking for a Hezbollah-style war of attrition with Israel.
Zeev Schiff, a military analyst at the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, said: "I don't think Hamas wants to get into a large-scale war. It wants to build itself up. It needs a few clashes but they prefer a kind of ceasefire.
"So Israel can act here and there, but I don't think we are going to go big in Gaza unless something big happens first. In the army you have all sorts of opinions, but in the end it's up to the political echelon."
In an interview late last week, Olmert did not rule out a military strike in Gaza, but he said it would not be the first course of action he would take.
Meanwhile, the UN said any Israeli invasion of Gaza would worsen already poor living conditions.
David Shearer, head of the UN's Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Jerusalem, said: "An invasion would be a disaster from a humanitarian point of view. Things are bad enough as it is and it would make them seriously worse."
About 400 Palestinians died last year during Israeli incursions into Gaza, he said.