The top candidates to become Israel’s next prime minister vowed on Sunday to topple Hamas in the Gaza Strip and officials authorized strikes on a wider range of Islamist targets after a six-month-old truce ended in violence.
The threats by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and right-wing Likud party chief Benjamin Netanyahu followed a Cabinet meeting in which outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert cautioned against rushing into a large-scale ground operation in the Hamas-ruled enclave in response to escalating rocket fire by militants.
Such an operation could result in heavy casualties on both sides, fuel a major humanitarian crisis in the aid-dependent Gaza Strip and spark an international outcry against Israel.
Until now, the Israeli military has carried out limited air strikes against rocket launchers, but defense sources said the air force now had a green light to go after other Hamas targets as well. The sources would not identify what those potential targets might be and when those air strikes might begin.
If elected prime minister in a Feb. 10 election, Livni, who heads the centrist Kadima Party, said her government’s “strategic objective” would be to “topple the Hamas regime” using military, economic and diplomatic means. She did not set a timetable.
Netanyahu, Livni’s main rival for the premiership, called for a more “active policy of attack,” accusing the current government of being too “passive.”
“In the long term, we will have to topple the Hamas regime. In the short term … there are a wide range of possibilities, from doing nothing to doing everything, meaning to conquer Gaza,” Netanyahu said during a visit to a house in the southern Israeli town of Sderot that was hit by a rocket.
Palestinian militants have fired nearly 60 of the makeshift rockets and mortar shells at Israel since the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire with Hamas ended on Friday, the Israeli army said. Over the weekend, an Israeli air strike killed one militant and at least one person in Israel was injured by shell shrapnel.
Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas government in Gaza, brushed aside the Israeli threat.
“Nothing can finish off our people,” he said.
Hamas official Ayman Taha said the Islamist group would outlive Livni.
Olmert had cautioned his Cabinet against making “bold statements” about an operation in the Gaza Strip and suggested that he favored a wait-and-see approach.
“A government doesn’t rush to battle, but doesn’t avoid it either,” Olmert said. “Israel will know how to give the proper response at the right time in the right way, responsibly.”
Underscoring the military challenge in the Gaza Strip, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that even an incursion involving more than 20,000 troops may not be enough to end rocket fire.
Ministers promising to topple Hamas “do not know what they are talking about,” Barak said.
Meanwhile, Israel’s swift eviction of Jewish zealots from one of the most volatile West Bank flashpoints was offering some encouragement to those who hope it is still possible to uproot settlers to make room for a Palestinian state.
Police and soldiers encountered little resistance this month when they expelled some 200 people from a contested house in Hebron, near the traditional burial site of Abraham, the shared patriarch of Muslims and Jews.
But the shooting and arson attacks by settlers on Palestinians following the eviction were a reminder of how quickly the West Bank could plunge into violence, taking down any hopes of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.