TEL AVIV—Israel pounded the Gaza Strip with planes and artillery for a second straight day and began mobilizing tens of thousands of troops, while Palestinian militants mounted their deepest-ever missile strikes into the heart of Israel.Continue reading.
The exchanges, which have killed 19 Palestinians and three Israelis, broadened a conflict that had erupted into the open the day before. Israel responded to escalating missile strikes from Gaza militants by launching a blitz of airstrikes Wednesday that killed the top military commander of Hamas, the Islamist militant group and political movement that runs Gaza.
It was unclear whether Thursday's troop movements were designed to intimidate Israel's foes or to lay the groundwork for an invasion. Israel's leaders have said they are ready to launch a ground assault if rocket fire continues.
"The situation has all the elements and dynamics that could lead us down the road to a place we haven't been before," said Steve Cook, a Mideast specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It's a very dangerous situation, and it's difficult to say what the Israelis should do."
The conflict's course from here on out rests largely with Israel and its neighbor, Egypt—the two nations that form the cornerstone of U.S. policy in the region, but which have seen ties fray in the months since an Islamist government came to power in Egypt.
U.S. efforts to calm the situation depend largely on Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, analysts said. Before becoming president earlier this year, he was a top leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, which has close ideological links to Hamas. With his election, he inherited oversight of billions of dollars in annual U.S. military support and a U.S.-brokered Israeli-Egyptian peace deal that has defined regional security for three decades.
On Thursday, Mr. Morsi ordered Egypt's prime minister to lead a delegation into Gaza on Friday, Egyptian state television reported. The visit would pose an unprecedented challenge to Israel, perhaps forcing it to scale back its military operations while the delegation is there. Mr. Morsi's activist response to Israeli-Palestinian violence marks a stark reversal from the more hands-off policies of his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.
President Barack Obama and administration officials have been in contact with leaders of Israel and Egypt—staunchly supporting Israel's operation while pressing the Egyptians to rein in Hamas, officials said.
"I'm not going to speculate on where this might go, beyond saying that we all want to see a de-escalation of the violence and that the onus rests squarely on Hamas," said State Department spokesman Mark Toner. "It needs to stop its rocket attacks."
Israel, Hamas Escalate Hostilities
At the Wall Street Journal, "Israel Mobilizes Troops as Hostilities Escalate":