Israeli soldiers at entrance to uncovered tunnel, March 20, 2014
Israeli soldiers at entrance to uncovered tunnel, March 20, 2014 Photo by Eliyahu Hershkovich
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Israel's security cabinet decided Monday after a three-hour meeting to escalate attacks against Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza. Senior officials in Jerusalem said that the ministers decided to refrain from a large-scale military operation for now, but ordered the army to prepare for significant expansion of the operation.

The Israel Defense Forces is preparing to call up some 1,500 reservists from two infantry brigades around the Gaza Strip as it prepares for the escalation, according to an IDF officer.

The official in Jerusalem said the escalation was aimed at halting the rocket fire and would be expanded as necessary if the launches did not cease.

“The blows will be harder,” one of the senior officials said. “Each succeeding day will be harder for Hamas. We will escalate the attacks to make it clear to them that it is in their interest to stop the rocket fire. We are prepared to broaden the operation in case the rocket fire does not stop.”

The senior officials said that Egyptian intelligence continues to convey messages between Israel and Hamas in an effort to calm things down. They said that while the messages coming from Hamas stated, among other things, a desire for calm and a cease-fire, the behavior of Hamas operatives on the ground was the opposite. “There is an internal dispute between the Hamas’s military wing and its political leadership,” one of the senior Israeli officials said. “[Sunday] it seemed that they were heading toward a cease-fire and that things on the ground had calmed down, but today the situation is reversed.”

The reservists will include Border Police officers deployed to replace units in the army's other fronts. "The IDF is preparing for the possibility that the operation will expand," an IDF officer said. "We are demonstrating increasing efforts and increasing our preparedness in the field already. The remark 'Quiet for quiet' was said last Thursday, today we are preparing for escalation."

The defense establishment believes that not only is Hamas failing to prevent the rocket fire on Israel's southern communities, which have increased in recent hours, but that it is launching the projectiles itself.

The IDF chief of staff held a briefing alongside the Military Intelligence chief, the GOC Southern Command and GOC Home Front Command.

According to the senior IDF officer, the army had come to the realization that it must operate in Gaza and could no longer push off that decision just because of the rising tensions in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Also Monday, it emerged that the six Hamas operatives killed overnight were caught by a collapsed tunnel in which the Israeli army had been drilling in two days before, and that was intended to carry out terror attacks against Israel. 

A senior Israel Defense Forces official said that one end of the tunnel in the southern Gaza Strip collapsed when explosive materials being handled by the Hamas operatives detonated for reasons which are still unknown. The operatives were middle-ranking members of the Islamist organization.

The Israel Air Force later Sunday struck the western side of the same tunnel. IDF forces have been active in the area over the past few days, and are drilling in the area.

"We are engaged in searching and locating all ends of the tunnel, and we are continuing to strike targets not related to the tunnels," the official said. "The overnight events are significant in terms of Hamas, and we have therefore decided to coordinate forces and take control of the escalation."

The defense establishment still does not know when and how Hamas planned to use the tunnel, but the official said that the intention was to use the tunnel to carry out an attack.