JERUSALEM: Israeli aircraft struck the Gaza Strip on Thursday in response to militant rocket and mortar attacks, stoking concerns that a grave new round of hostilities will fill the vacuum left by an impasse in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
Two years of relative calm have been unraveling in recent weeks with acts of violence against Israelis — including a deadly bombing in Jerusalem on Wednesday that killed an unidentified female British tourist — and Israeli reprisals against Gaza militants, which in one case killed four Palestinian civilians.
Militants operating near the Israeli border sent at least seven rockets and mortars flying at Israeli communities throughout the day, drawing a pair of air attacks. No injuries were reported on either side.
Because of the superiority of Israel’s military, its enemies consider hitting Israeli cities as the most effective strategy in a war against the Jewish state. At least two rockets this week have landed in Beersheba, the largest city in southern Israel.
Israel’s inability to halt the rocket fire has drawn public criticism, especially since Israel has spent an estimated $200 million developing a system that is meant to shoot down the short-range rockets that militants use.
Although officials have repeatedly promised the Iron Dome is ready to be deployed, it so far hasn’t been used in the field.
Home Front Minister Matan Vilnai, who oversees civil defense, refused to discuss the holdup in an interview on Israel Radio Thursday.
Israeli security officials have said little about the investigations into Wednesday’s bus stop bombing and the knife killings of five members of a family in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank two weeks ago. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said there were gag orders preventing discussion of either probe. He said only that Jerusalem police remained on a heightened state of alert.
The rising wave of violence has been the fiercest since Israel went to war in Hamas-ruled Gaza more than two years ago to try to curb years of frequent rocket attacks.
On Thursday, Israel filed a complaint with the UN about the rising wave of attacks on its citizens.
Before leaving for a brief trip to Russia, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned militants not to test Israel’s "iron will" and vowed a tough response. But he also expressed hope that calm would be restored.
Neither side is thought to be spoiling for a major fight, but the concern is that events will spiral out of control.
In late December 2008, Israel responded to months of intense rocket fire and years of more sporadic attacks with a fierce three-week offensive into Gaza, killing some 1,400 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians.
Thirteen Israelis also died in that offensive.
The violently anti-Israel Hamas movement that rules Gaza has largely honored an unofficial truce since then. But the lull has been fraying in recent weeks — and at a particularly fragile diplomatic moment.
Peace talks between Israel and Hamas’ rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, collapsed after the 2008 war broke out, reviving only briefly for three weeks in September 2010.
With no signs that the two sides are making any progress to resume peacemaking, Abbas is pushing to get the international community to recognize a Palestinian state by fall in the absence of a peace deal. Such recognition at the United Nations would not change things on the ground, but could further isolate Israel.
Abbas, who controls only the West Bank, has repeatedly rejected violence and condemned Wednesday’s bombing.
Hamas, which violently wrested control of Gaza in fighting with Abbas loyalists in June 2007, sees the diplomatic standstill as proof that only an armed struggle against Israel will win the Palestinians a state.