Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Sunday that by allowing militants to continue firing rockets against innocent Israelis, Hamas has left the Israel Defense Forces with no choice but to operate in the Gaza Strip.
"The time has come for action. The military operations are continuing and Hamas bears the responsibility," Barak said, during a meeting with various defense officials including IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin.
"We pulled out of Gaza, we tore Israelis from their homes, just for quiet in the communities in the Gaza envelope. These were painful concessions that we made for quiet, and Hamas has continued its fire without reason," he said at the opening of the meeting.
"They are firing on innocent civilians and have left us no choice. We will operate with force to change the situation, and we will change it," the defense minister vowed.
MI: Iran looking at Gaza to determine next step
Military Intelligence Chief Amos Yadlin said Sunday that Iran and its allies Syria and the Hezbollah were using the ongoing violence in the Gaza Strip as a reference point to determine their own future actions with regard to Israel.
"The fact that Iran, Syria and the Hezbollah are not firing now does not mean they have emerged from their campaign," he told ministers at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.
"Everyone is looking to see how the conflict in Gaza will end, to determine how to operate," he added.
According to Yadlin, Hamas is dissatisfied with its current situation and is looking to settle the score with Israel.
"The pressure on the organization has led it to decide that the situation is insufferable and they must break the siege and create a new equation against Israel," he said.
In response, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said "a new equation needs to be created in Gaza. We will create it, not Hamas."
Barak said during the meeting that the IDF operations in Gaza were being carried out because "Israel cannot and need not accept the expanded range of fire from Gaza. The use of Grad missiles at once triples the number of residents exposed to the fire."
Meanwhile, Barak has decided to convene a meeting on Monday with Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann and legal experts from within the government and military to determine the legality of attacking civilian areas in Gaza being used to fire rockets.
IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi told ministers at the meeting that of the 100 Palestinians killed in recent days, 90 of them were militants, mostly from Hamas.
Shin Bet chief: Hamas could stop rockets if it wanted
The head of the Shin Bet security services, Yuval Diskin, said during the meeting that any interest shown by Hamas in reaching a truce in Gaza was in order to take over the West Bank at a later date.
"Hamas has a greater advantage in urban warfare and that is a reason for the pattern of the IDF's current operations," he said.
He said Hamas was taken by surprise by Israel's strength in responding to rocket fire, adding that as a result, the militant group has cut down on the number of rockets it has launched despite Israel's continued attack on Gaza.
He emphasized that if Hamas wanted to, it could halt the rocket fire entirely. "If Hamas were to understand that the continued fire endangers its assets, it would try to organize a cease-fire with the other organizations," he said.
PM: We won't halt Gaza ops even for a second
Olmert vowed Sunday to press on with military action against Gaza rocket squads, saying the current operation would not be halted even for a second.
"If anyone in Gaza has illusions that extending the range of rocket fire will bring our operations to an end they are sorely mistaken," Olmert told the cabinet meeting.
"Let me be clear, Israel has no intention of stopping the fight against terror for even a second, and we will act according to the blueprint set by the government at a time and intensity of our choosing, in order to strike the terror organizations and those who provide them with cover and the ability to operate," he said.
Despite the prime minister's defiant remarks, he drew fire from Public Security Minister Avi Dichter who attacked Olmert over the security situation in rocket-battered southern communities.
"We are creating with our very own hands the atmosphere of ghost towns," Dichter said at the cabinet meeting.
"Israeli citizens are not perishable goods," the public security minister continued, telling the prime minister he expected him "to order the IDF to completely end the rocket fire at Israel, at any price."
Also at Sunday's meeting, Olmert dismissed recent international condemnation of the Israel Defense Forces operation in Gaza.
"I hear criticism and claims that civilians are being hurt and that Israel is using too much force. Israel is defending its residents in the south, and with all due respect, nothing will prevent it from protecting them - and no one has the right to preach to us over actions that are in self defense," he said.
The prime minister stated that the Katyusha rocket fire at the southern city of Ashkelon was in response to the assassination of five Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip last week. The militants were en route to carrying out a major terror attack, and therefore, according to Olmert, Hamas decided to retaliate by firing rockets deeper into Israeli territory.
With reference to suspended peace talks with the Palestinian Authority, Olmert said: "We have clarified in the past that negotiations will not come at the expense of defending our citizens and fighting terror."
"Everyone understands that harming Hamas means strengthening the chances for peace, and the more we harm Hamas, the more the chances for peace will grow. In addition, the moderate Palestinian leadership understands this," the prime minister added.
Barak: IDF to broaden operation against rocket squads
Barak said Sunday that the IDF operation against Gaza rocket fire would broaden, and reiterated earlier comments that a major ground offensive was a real and tangible option.
"We are not happy about it, we won't shy from it," Barak told Israel Radio.
"There are many considerations about the timing," he said, without elaborating.
Barak spoke a day after two IDF soldiers and 63 Palestinians were killed in an operation in northern Gaza City, launched in response to escalating rocket fire by Gaza militants last week.
The defense minister said in a separate interview on Army Radio: "This is not the broad ground operation, but whoever says there will not be a big ground operation speaks on his own behalf."
One aim of any broad incursion into Gaza would be to "weaken the Hamas rule, in the right circumstances even bring it down," he said.
Meanwhile, Olmert and top defense officials were to meet on Sunday to discuss their next moves in Gaza, though the IDF policy is not expected to change. Olmert and Barak are said to support more actions like the ones over the weekend.
The weekend's events were the result of a decision Friday by Barak and Olmert to step up activity within the current policy, something expected to dilute some of the criticism of Olmert's policy by certain ministers.