Israeli troops killed three Palestinian gunmen firing mortars into southern Israel on Tuesday, in a sudden spurt of violence as Israel debated whether to pursue a truce with Gaza's Hamas rulers or launch a broad military operation instead.
In a related development, the father of an Israeli soldier held captive in Gaza by Hamas said his son pleaded for his life and appealed to the government not to abandon him in a letter delivered to the family this week.
The Israeli strike came after Gaza militants bombarded southern Israel with 20 mortar rounds in the space of an hour at midday Tuesday. At the time, Israel's top three officials — Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni — were meeting to discuss what to do about Gaza. Officials refused to comment on the discussion.
Hamas said three members of one of its mortar squads were killed in the retaliatory airstrike.
With four Israeli civilians killed in rocket and mortar attacks since the beginning of the year, Israel's leadership is under growing pressure to do something about the assaults. Barak and other government officials have repeatedly said an Israel offensive is merely a matter of time.
Barak told the Israeli Cabinet on Tuesday he believes "we should talk less" about plans for Gaza. "When the time comes, we'll act," Barak said, according to a participant in the meeting.
Rockets and mortars
Militants have been bombarding southern Israel with near-daily rocket and mortar attacks for seven years, increasing their rate of fire after Israel pulled its troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005 and further ratcheting up attacks after Hamas militants overran Gaza last year. Israel's military has so far limited its reprisals to pinpoint attacks, fearing a broad military campaign would result in heavy casualties on both sides.
One of Hamas' key bargaining chips is Gilad Schalit, the Israeli soldier it has been holding for nearly two years. Hamas hopes to trade the 21-year-old tank crewman for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, but Israel has balked at releasing the jailed militants that Hamas wants, some of whom are serving time for fatal attacks against Israelis.
Hamas made good on a promise to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and allowed the captured soldier to send a letter to his parents. It was delivered to them on Monday.
Schalit's father, Noam, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that his son pleaded for his life and appealed to his government not to abandon him. He declined to quote directly from the letter.
The soldier has not been seen since he was seized in a cross-border raid in June 2006, when two other soldiers were killed. An audio recording of his voice and two other letters have been released.
Egypt has been trying to broker a truce, but the cease-fire efforts have faltered over Israel's demand that Hamas free Schalit as part of the deal and a Hamas demand that Israel lift a blockade that has confined Gazans to their tiny seaside territory and deepened their poverty.
Talk of peace?
This week Hamas marks the first anniversary of its violent takeover of the coastal strip from security forces affiliated with moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The group rejects the Jewish state's right to exist and has said publicly it wants a truce to rearm and regroup.
Adding urgency to Israel's decision are assessments by its military intelligence that Hamas is rapidly upgrading its arsenal with Iranian assistance. Brig. Gen. Yossi Baidatz, a senior intelligence officer, told the Cabinet on Tuesday that Hamas now has rockets with a range of 12 miles, endangering a significant swath of southern Israel. Militants are also increasingly using deadlier 120mm mortar shells instead of smaller ones, Baidatz said, according to a participant in the meeting.
While battling militants in Gaza, Israel has been trying to pursue peace with Abbas and his West Bank government. Peace talks resumed at a U.S.-sponsored conference in November after seven years of violence, but have been marred by the same problems that have derailed earlier rounds of talks — Palestinian complaints about Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and Israeli concerns that Palestinians are far from ready to assume responsibility for security.
On Tuesday, a politically charged tax transfer from Israel reached the Palestinian treasury a week late, Yusuf Zumor of the Palestinian Finance Ministry confirmed.
Israel said it withheld nearly a third of the $75 million to cover Palestinian debts to Israel's electric company and to Israeli hospitals that treated Palestinians. But it appears the delay was at least partly a punitive measure taken by Israel because Prime Minister Salam Fayyad lobbied European nations not to boost their relations with the Jewish state.
Fayyad exhibited "a kind of behavior that, in terms of our relationship with the Palestinians, we should not have seen," Israeli Finance Minister Roni Bar-On told reporters on Tuesday.
Israel collects certain tax revenues for the Palestinians and transfers the money each month, deducting money the Palestinians owe Israel for electricity and medical costs. The revenues go to pay the salaries of Palestinian government workers, whose wages were delayed because the transfer was overdue.