Israel mobilizes ground forces for an incursion into Gaza, after rockets fired at Jerusalem

Saturday, November 17, 2012
By Paul Martin
November 17, 2012

TEL AVIV—Israel’s military stepped up its mobilizations for a possible ground invasion of the Gaza Strip on Friday after Palestinian rockets struck near Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, as neighboring Egypt escalated its own war of words against Israel. Late Friday, Israel’s cabinet approved the call-up of 75,000 Israeli reservists, more than doubling the number authorized the previous day. Heavy armor and soldiers from two elite brigades continued to mass at staging grounds on the Gaza border. A decision to launch a ground invasion could come within 24 to 36 hours if rocket fire continues, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told CNN on Friday “They don’t call up all these reserves to keep people standing in the stands watching,” said a senior Israeli military official. “After rockets on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, it’s pretty hard not to” order a ground invasion. For three hours on Friday, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil visited the Gaza Strip and stood hand-in-hand with leaders of Hamas, the militant and political group that rules Gaza. Coming after two days of Israeli strikes there, it was a bold show of support for Hamas from Cairo as well as a diplomatic gambit to gain a break in the fighting. Israel had pledged to hold its fire during Mr. Qandil’s visit. But rockets from the Palestinian territory could be heard taking off toward Israel, even as the Egyptian premier spoke to reporters. The emerging question in the latest conflict—which was sparked by a rise in Gazan rocket attacks on Israel earlier this month, and broke into the open when Israel assassinated Hamas’s top military commander on Wednesday—is how far Egypt’s new Islamist government can extend itself on the behalf of its ideological allies in Hamas. Egypt is a peace partner of Israel. Its gasping economy depends on Western largess and its military largely is funded by the U.S. In recent days, U.S. President Barack Obama has had several calls with Egypt’s recently elected Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, aimed at bringing Hamas in line. During Friday’s call, the White House said, President Obama commended Egypt’s efforts to de-escalate the situation. “Morsi’s room to maneuver is very limited,” said Ofer Zalzberg, a Middle East analyst with the International Crisis Group. “He is dependent on the West. Everything he has done so far is pretty standard, not very different than what [former President Hosni] Mubarak would have done. Even sending the PM to Gaza, he declared that only after his conversation with Obama. So he’s not out there acting unilaterally.” If Israel’s leaders give the order for a ground assault on Gaza, it would be the first such operations since 2009 and would plunge Israel’s government into risky territory—risking soldier casualties and steep political fallout should the operation go awry, and jeopardizing its international backing. Israel’s three-week ground war against Hamas in 2009 left more than 1,000 Palestinians dead, and destroyed entire villages and much of Gaza’s infrastructure. Israel’s image tanked internationally as it fended off war-crimes accusations. Prime Minister Qandil arrived in Gaza on Friday morning to demonstrate his new government’s clear policy break from Mr. Mubarak’s more-pro-Israeli regime. In a visit unprecedented for such a senior Egyptian official, he met with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh before visiting wounded civilians at a crowded Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. -WSJ

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