Escalation in revenge attacks pushes Israel closer to war

A rocket fired by Palestinian militants from Gaza struck an area close to Tel Aviv yesterday in a bold attack that could provoke Israel into a decisive strike and bring it one step closer to a new Middle East war. The latest attack, which injured nobody and landed in an unpopulated area 15 miles south of the city, will unsettle Israelis, who are used to seeing low-grade rockets and mortars drop mostly harmlessly in areas close to Gaza, but rarely feel threatened in cities such as Tel Aviv.

"We have to respond," Israel's Defence minister, Ehud Barak, said at a joint press conference with the US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates one day after a bomb tore through a bus stop in Jerusalem. "Israel will not tolerate these terrorist attacks and we will not allow terror to rise once again."

The upsurge in rocket attacks comes after a series of deadly Israeli assaults on Gaza in the past week, including the killing of a senior Hamas operative and several Palestinian civilians in tit-for-tat air strikes and shelling.

Uncompromising rhetoric from Israeli politicians in recent days is reminiscent of the language used before Operation Cast Lead, Israel's short but deadly offensive on Gaza that left up to 1,400 Palestinians dead. It has left pundits wondering if Israel is preparing for a new ground offensive in Gaza, the blockaded coastal territory run by Islamist group Hamas.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Jewish state's hawkish Prime Minister, is under pressure domestically to prove that he can protect Israeli citizens in the wake of two recent deadly attacks – the slaying of Jewish settlers in their home in the West Bank, and a bomb in central Jerusalem on Wednesday.

Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs yesterday named the sole fatality of the Jerusalem blast as Mary Jane Gardner, a 59-year-old British tourist who was taking Hebrew courses in the city.

The bomb attack, which injured more than 35 people, was the first such incident in Jerusalem in seven years, coming amid an impasse in the Arab-Israeli peace process, and shattering years of relative calm in the city. For many, it was an unwelcome reminder of the years of the Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, when bombings were an almost daily occurrence.

Israeli authorities have accused Palestinian terrorists of mounting the attack, and police yesterday were still searching for the perpetrators, who left the bomb concealed in a shopping bag just yards from the city's main bus station.