Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were bracing for an Israeli attack that one newspaper said could come as early as tomorrow, after militants ignored warnings from the country's leaders and fired a barrage of rockets at the Jewish state. Egypt boosted security along its border with Gaza, fearing an Israeli attack could precipitate thousands of desperate Gazans to breach the barricade, as they did in January.
The escalating tensions came after Hamas, the Islamist political party that governs the coastal region, rejected renewing a six-month ceasefire last Friday. Since Wednesday, about 100 rockets and mortars shells have been fired on southern Israel - most of which injured no one. However, two children were killed yesterday when a rocket apparently missed its target and fell on a house in northern Gaza, Agence France Presse said, quoting villagers.
The attacks, the most intense since the two sides agreed a ceasefire in June, have elicited a stream of belligerent warnings from top Israeli officials "I say to you in a last-minute call, stop it," Ehud Olmert, Israel's outgoing prime minister, said in a rare interview with the Arabic satellite channel, Al Arabiya, on Thursday night. "Don't let Hamas, which is acting against the values of Islam, put you in danger."
Meanwhile, Tzipi Livni, Israel's foreign minister, met Hosni Mubarak, the president of Egypt in Cairo on Thursday. Egypt has spent the last week urging Israel and Hamas to renew the ceasefire. However, Ms Livni was resolute in her determination that Israel had the right to take retaliatory action. "Enough is enough," Ms Livni said, according to the Associated Press. "When there's shooting, there's a response. Any state would react that way."
Israel's "limited" military strike on Gaza, which will combine air attacks with a ground assault against Hamas militants, is expected to follow meetings of senior Israeli security officials tomorrow, according to Ha'aretz, an Israeli newspaper. Even as Israel prepared to attack Gaza, the ministry of defence opened two border crossings yesterday to allow lorries carrying food and fuel to enter the area. Israel has isolated the Gaza Strip since June 2007, when militants aligned with Hamas, which refuses to recognise Israel's right to exist, routed Fatah from the region.
Since then, Palestinian politics has been characterised by internecine fighting between the rival political parties, and Israel has blockaded the strip in order to pressure Gazans to reject the more militant Hamas party. For both the Israelis and the Palestinians, the latest negotiations have been coloured by looming political contests. In polls that are expected to take place on Feb 10, Ms Livni is running for prime minister against Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister and head of the Labor party, and Benjamin Netanyahu, the conservative leader of the Likud party. Mr Netanyahu has been trenchant in his calls for a military response to Hamas attacks.
His position has placed substantial pressure on Ms Livni and Mr Barak. For the divided Palestinians, a leadership decision must come even sooner. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian National Authority, faces the end of his presidential term on Jan 9. On Thursday, the Palestinian leaders appealed to Hamas to return to power-sharing negotiations with Fatah. Mr Abbas has threatened to hold early elections if Hamas's intransigence continues. Hamas officials have said they will refuse to recognise Mr Abbas if he clings to power past the end of his term.