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Operation "Days of Penitence," which began on Tuesday night in the area of Beit Hanun and the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, continued over the weekend and claimed more casualties on both sides. Two Israel Defense Forces soldiers were injured and at least nine Palestinians were killed, bringing the total of Palestinian dead to more than 50, including civilians. At the same time, the launching of Qassam rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israel has resumed, this time without claiming any victims or causing damage. A State Department spokesman called on Israel to avoid harming innocent civilians and to "keep its responses in proportion."

At the same time, in an interview with the Arabic-language television station Al Jazeera, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the Palestinian intifada has made no gains and it is now time to put an end to it. It appears that Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz interpreted the American response as a green light for Israel to carry on with the operation. During a visit to the Gaza Strip, he said "the United States understands that Israel has a right to defend itself and that if it is attacked - it must respond." However, he did note that "the target must be the terrorists and not civilians."

The deployment of tanks in crowded neighborhoods is meant to protect the lives of the soldiers. But experience has shown that such tactics necessarily increase the number of casualties among civilians. The large IDF forces entering the Gaza Strip, and the large number of dead and injured among the residents of Beit Hanun and Jabalya, raise concerns that the scale of the operation was set not merely out of pure security considerations but also in order to appease the residents of Sderot. The defense minister's statement, that the aim of the operation is "to send a clear message that Israel will not tolerate terrorist operations during the disengagement," hints at the pressure by the right of the opponents of the disengagement plan, who are taking advantage of the suffering of the Sderot residents, in order to bring about the escalation of a legitimate operation to put an end to the rocket attacks against Israeli citizens.

It is seriously doubtful if the killing of civilians, the razing of homes and the severe damage to essential infrastructure in the Gaza Strip brings calm to the residents of Sderot. Following four years of intifada, the popular support for Hamas and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades has not diminished. It is precisely now, when the preparations for the implementation of the plan of disengagement from the Gaza Strip are entering a practical stage, that it is in Israel's interest to contain the conflagration and limit as much as possible the current round, which began with the launching of Qassam rockets against Sderot.

In order to prevent terrorist attacks during the disengagement, in the words of the defense minister, the government of Israel must act to calm the situation and expedite the preparations for pulling out of the Gaza Strip. At the same time, it must exhaust the efforts to pass security responsibility in the streets of Gaza and in the refugee camps away from extremist groups and into the hands of a central authority, with international supervision. For Israelis and Palestinians who regard the disengagement plan as a first step toward putting an end to the violent confrontation and to resuming dialogue, there is no interest in escalating the situation in the Gaza Strip, in particular, and in the occupied territories, in general.