Sderot residents demand a response to the rockets

After a Kassam rocket attack seriously injured two brothers in Sderot late last week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert again came under intense pressure to launch a major military strike against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli media, opposition and coalition politicians, and Sderot residents all are urging the government to hit Hamas hard.

Jerusalem is considering two possible courses of action: assassinating top Hamas military and political leaders or conducting a large-scale ground invasion of Gaza to smash Hamas’ military infrastructure.

Hamas leaders reportedly have gone into hiding.

Olmert’s dilemma is not so much over whether to order the assassinations — Israel already has been carrying out targeted assassinations in Gaza, though not of Hamas’ top leaders — but over the proposed land invasion.

After the Winograd Commission’s harsh report on his performance during the Second Lebanon War, Olmert is understandably hesitant about getting into a military imbroglio.

During the past several weeks, Palestinians in Gaza have fired hundreds of rockets at Israelis in and around Sderot.

On Feb. 9, brothers Rami and Osher Twito, 19 and 8, were hit while walking in town. Both suffered multiple injuries; Osher had his left leg amputated.

Sderot residents marched through Jerusalem the following day carrying remnants of Kassam rockets and placards calling on Olmert to resign. They also stopped traffic in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Under banner headlines, the nation’s newspapers demanded action. Even the left-leaning daily Ha’aretz carried an editorial titled “Restraint is not possible.”

Politicians on both sides of the political divide were equally blunt.

Likud opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu lambasted government ineptitude and called for an immediate invasion of Gaza. Interior Minister Meir Shitreet urged the government to warn the residents of a Gaza neighborhood to leave and then wipe the neighborhood off the map.

Tzahi Hanegbi, the chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said Gaza is an Iranian forward position, and he called on the government to assassinate Hamas’ political leadership and topple Gaza’s Hamas regime.

According to some reports, the government already has ordered the Israel Defense Forces to step up assassinations of Hamas operatives and to target the organization’s higher echelons.

Besides Haniyeh, Hamas military chief Ahmad Ja’abri and other top militia commanders have gone underground.

Hamas has warned that it would mount an unprecedented retaliation if any of its leaders were assassinated. Spokesman Sami Abu Zuheri said such an Israeli attack would force the organization to use “everything it had at its disposal.”

As for a ground invasion, the IDF believes that a full-scale land operation in Gaza could cost Israel hundreds of soldiers and cause even more damage to the home front than the 34-day bombardment of northern Israel in the summer of 2006, when Hezbollah fired about 4,000 Katyusha rockets into Israel. Furthermore, the IDF has told Olmert the Air Force could get better results once winter ends.

Most important, Olmert is still working on coordinating a strategy for Gaza with the international community. As with Lebanon, Israel wants to see an international peacekeeping force move into Gaza to control the situation. Thus far, however, no overseas countries seem ready to commit troops to such a dangerous mission.

In the meantime, Olmert seems to be playing for time. Remarking on the anger of the people of Sderot, the prime minister said that while he sympathizes with their plight, “rage is not a policy.” And he declared that “there is no way to put an absolute end to terrorism with a single blow.”