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Stronger Response to Hamas Rockets Falls Short for Some in Israeli Coalition

Israel’s battle with Hamas is slowly escalating — too slowly for some in the government.

A week into a surge of cross-border rocket salvoes by the dominant Palestinian Authority faction, the Israeli Cabinet decided Sunday to broaden the spectrum of Hamas terrorists that would be targeted by Israel’s air-strike campaign, but to stop short of a comprehensive ground offensive.

“If the strong measures ordered do not bring calm, then the Cabinet will convene to consider further, more drastic measures,” a Cabinet statement read.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert argued on the air for the “measured” escalation. But it angered many Israeli right-wingers, including the Yisrael Beiteinu party, which is part of the governing coalition.

Yisrael Beiteinu chief Avigdor Lieberman, the minister for strategic affairs, hinted that he could quit the government unless firmer action is taken against Hamas. Some rightists want an offensive akin to Israel’s 2002 sweep of the West Bank, known as Operation Defensive Shield, or even an assassination campaign against Hamas political leaders.

“The current coalition has reached the moment of truth,” Lieberman told Israel Radio. “They must either dismantle Hamas or dismantle the government.

“The time has come to stop making bombastic declarations and threats. I believe it is definitely time to embark on daring and unusual actions.”

While Olmert’s coalition would be strong enough to survive a walkout by Yisrael Beiteinu, a deadly blow looms in the form of Ami Ayalon, the frontrunner for the May 28 primary in the Labor Party.

Should Ayalon succeed in toppling Defense Minister Amir Peretz as party chief, he is widely expected to issue an ultimatum to Olmert: Quit or lose Labor.

Olmert is still far from regaining public trust over his handling of last summer’s Lebanon war, something that may have contributed to his reluctance to order troops into Gaza en masse. Peretz is similarly tarred by Israel’s difficulties against Hezbollah.

Peretz, touring his hometown of Sderot on Sunday in a bid to offer succor to residents reeling from more than 120 rocket strikes in recent days, said Israel’s tactics have succeeded in impairing Hamas’ fighting capabilities.

But with many Sderot residents having fled or hiding at home, the town was also having trouble functioning — so much so that Peretz ordered the town placed under partial martial law.

When the current flare-up began, Israel at first held its fire. Hamas was fighting on two fronts, launching rockets into the western Negev and waging street battles against rivals from the more moderate Palestinian faction Fatah.

Largely by default, Fatah has shifted into U.S. and Israeli favor since it was ousted by Hamas in Palestinian Authority elections last year. As the death toll from the internal Gaza clashes mounted last week, Hamas accused Fatah of attempting a coup on the West’s behalf.

But after several botched truce attempts, the factions appeared over the weekend to have settled their differences for now, raising the possibility that Israel’s military actions — especially if they exact civilian casualties — will unite the Palestinians anew against the “Zionist enemy.”

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