Israel is determined to restore its deterrence against Hamas, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Tuesday morning during a situation assessment of the escalation in the south.
"Hamas and the other terrorist organizations are suffering as a result of intense strikes [by the IDF] in Gaza. But it is certainly not over and we will decide how and when to act if necessary," Barak said after the situation assessment conducted with the IDF's Gaza Division in the south.
"We do not intend to allow, in any shape or form, the continued harming of the day-to-day life of our citizens," the defense minister said. "And we intend to reinforce the deterrence — and strengthen it — so that we are able to operate along the length of the border fence in a way that will ensure the security of all our soldiers who are serving around the Gaza Strip."
One option that many ministers have backed in an effort to halt intensified rocket attacks on the south is the resumption of assassinations of terrorist leaders in Gaza.
During a Forum of Nine meeting convened by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday, ministers were scheduled to discuss how to best respond to Hamas amid the continuing violence, with some suggesting another major ground operation, and others saying the contentious practice of targeted killings should be resumed.
The ministers need to decide between an escalated air offensive or a wide ground operation, and what kind of scenario they want Israel to enter into several months before the general elections. The ministers also need to take into account the reaction of Egypt's new Islamist government.
A senior minister who participated in the Forum of Nine meeting told Israel Radio on Tuesday that Israel "cannot have these kinds of rounds of fighting every two weeks."
"Sooner or later there will be a wide-ranging military offensive in Gaza. There is no doubt it will come when the time is right. It won't be a limited, pin-point operation, but rather a deep military action against the terror infrastructure in the Gaza Strip," the minister said.
Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom told Army Radio ahead of the meeting, "Apparently, Israel has no choice but to perform targeted assassinations against Hamas leaders, and then maybe even send ground forces into Gaza. There are no election considerations here — only an interest in protecting the residents of the south."
Earlier this week, Vice Premier Moshe Ya'alon touted the targeted assassination policy, saying that it had brought quiet to Israel's border with Gaza before, and could do so again. That Israel might renew a practice that brought it harsh international censure is evidence of the tight spot Netanyahu is in. With Israeli elections two months away, rocket barrages from the Gaza Strip are disrupting the lives of one million residents of southern Israel, pressuring the government to come up with an effective response.
In the latest flare-up, Gaza Strip terrorists have fired more than 150 rockets at Israel in recent days, triggering retaliatory Israeli airstrikes that have killed six people in the Gaza Strip.
Some Israelis are demanding a harsh military move, perhaps a repeat of Israel's bruising incursion into Gaza four years ago. Others believe Israel should target Hamas leaders, a method it used to kill dozens of terrorists nearly a decade ago.
Advocates say targeted killings are an effective deterrent without the complications associated with a ground operation, chiefly civilian and Israeli troop casualties. Proponents argue they also prevent future attacks by removing their masterminds.
Critics say they invite retaliation by terrorists and encourage them to try to assassinate Israeli leaders.
Defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential discussions, said the assassination of Hamas leaders was shaping up as the preferred response to the stepped-up rocket fire.
They have the backing of two former military chiefs with experience in the matter.
Opposition lawmaker Shaul Mofaz was IDF chief of staff and defense minister when Israel carried out a wave of assassinations against Hamas and other terrorist leaders in the early part of the past decade. He and other former senior defense officials contend these assassinations left the Hamas leadership in disarray and put a halt to the rash of Hamas suicide bombings that killed hundreds of Israelis.
"I'm in favor of targeted killings," Mofaz told Army Radio on Monday. "It is a policy that led Hamas to understand, during the suicide bombings, that they would pay the price should [the bombings] continue."
Vice Premier Moshe (Bogie) Ya'alon, the chief of staff at the time targeted killings surged, is convinced the practice worked.
"Clearly over these past 13 years there has been an ongoing war, but there have also been extended periods of calm," Ya'alon told Army Radio on Monday. "When I was chief of staff, the targeted killings against Hamas led to extended periods of quiet."
Under Ya'alon and Mofaz, Israeli aircraft struck at the commander of Hamas' military wing, Salah Shehadeh; the movement's spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin; his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi; and dozens of other senior Hamas commanders. Terrorists retaliated for some of the attacks but eventually replaced the suicide bombings with years of rocket fire that sends Israeli civilians running for shelters.
Backlash from human rights groups and governments was harsh, especially after Shehadeh was killed in a bombing along with 14 other people, most of them children.
The policy of targeted killings, said opposition lawmaker Zahava Gal-On (Meretz), "didn't prove itself. We killed, and there were more attacks."
What Israel should do is reach a long-term truce agreement with Hamas with the help of the Egyptians, said Gal-On.
Israel quelled much of the rocket fire with its devastating, three-week war in the Gaza Strip in early 2009, but Hamas and other terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip have been stocking their arsenals with more and better weapons. In recent months, they've been emboldened to escalate their barrages. Since Saturday, more than 150 rockets and mortars have struck southern Israel, according to the military's count.
Netanyahu on Monday told foreign ambassadors during a visit to Ashkelon, which has been battered by rockets from the Gaza Strip, that Israel would defend itself.
"I don't know of any of your governments who could accept such a thing. I don't know of any of the citizens of your cities, who could find that acceptable and something that could proceed on a normal basis. I think the whole world understands that this is not acceptable," Netanyahu said. "We'll take whatever action is necessary to put a stop to this. This is not merely our right, it's also our duty."
The latest Israeli airstrikes have killed six Palestinians, including four civilians, but the rocket attacks persist. Mediation efforts by the U.N. and Egypt have been unsuccessful so far.
Gaza terrorists are also talking tough. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Monday that "the Palestinian people and the resistance factions will not stand idly by but will defend themselves by all possible means."
Abu Ahmed, the spokesman for the Islamic Jihad group's military wing, questioned Israel's ability to conduct a broad offensive. "They recognize the magnitude of the resistance power in Gaza and the changed regional situation," he said.
Some defense officials believe Hamas will not be so easily subdued as before. Terrorists who once relied on crude rockets they manufactured themselves can draw now on sophisticated rockets and missiles smuggled in from Iran, Libya and other Middle Eastern countries.
MK Amir Peretz, a former defense minister, concluded that if Israel launched another incursion into Gaza, it would have to stay there for at least six months and take control of civilian installations and lives of the coastal strip's 1.6 million people.
Israel, which governed the Gaza Strip from 1967 until it withdrew 8,500 settlers and its soldiers in 2005, has other options before it reaches that point, Peretz said.
"Targeted killings are definitely an effective policy," Peretz said, adding that he supports the targeted killings of military leaders like Hamas military wing commander Ahmed Jabari, but killing political leaders like Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh may not be in Israel's interest.
"They'll find a replacement for Haniyeh very fast," he told Army Radio. "But a replacement for Jabari is very hard to find."