FIGHTING along the Israel-Gaza frontier deteriorated yesterday as Israel launched air strikes, killing two Palestinians, and Hamas firing its first cross-border rocket barrages in more than a year.
Agency reports asserted that the confrontation which entered its second day initially appeared to fit a familiar pattern of Israeli strikes against small squads of Gaza militants and rockets launched toward sparsely populated areas in southern Israel near the border.
But the surprise decision by the Gaza Strip’s Hamas Islamist rulers to re-engage militarily with Israel after months of staying on the sidelines and discouraging smaller militant groups from firing rockets held the prospect of wider conflict.
Since Monday, Israeli air strikes have killed six Palestinians, about four of them militants. Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, said the attacks prompted the group’s military wing “to take a firm stance” and launch rockets.
Israeli security officials said no fewer than 14 rockets were fired at southern Israel yesterday, causing no casualties.
Although other militant groups have fired rockets across the border in previous surges of violence, Hamas had held its fire under unofficial truces with Israel, a policy widely seen in Israel as effectively enabling the group to train and arm without much risk of Israeli attack.
Israel has said that Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip from forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007, bears overall responsibility for any attacks from the coastal enclave.
“The more things deteriorate, the closer we come to a decision we don’t want to make,” Israeli cabinet minister Silvan Shalom said. “The prospect of a ground operation (in the Gaza Strip) shouldn’t frighten us,“ Shalom added.