JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned home from Washington on Tuesday to a dilemma: how to avoid a confrontation in Gaza that could risk Israeli lives and hurt his election prospects without appearing to acquiesce to Hamas militants.
The political pressure on Netanyahu to mount a stronger response to Palestinian missile attacks this week intensified with the Israeli military reporting Tuesday evening that another rocket had been fired from Gaza, triggering warning sirens in southern Israel.
Several hours later, the military said its fighter jets had struck several targets in Gaza, including a Hamas military compound and a weapons-manufacturing facility in Khan Younis.
An uneasy calm had held for most of Tuesday following a turbulent Monday night, when 60 rockets were fired at Israel and Israeli jets carried out airstrikes against the Palestinian enclave. Despite reports from Gaza that Israel had agreed to a cease-fire, Israeli officials stressed that none had been reached.
As soon as Netanyahu arrived in Israel, he met with his security chiefs, and military officials said afterward they had received orders to send an additional artillery battalion and infantry brigade headquarters to southern Israel. Members of Netanyahu’s Likud party warned that a more forceful response may come.
The attacks launched from Gaza are putting the prime minister under scrutiny for the same issue that nearly brought down his government last year, when he was faulted for taking too soft an approach to Hamas rocket fire.
Now, he is being forced to tread a fine line two weeks before national election. If he agrees to a cease-fire, it would give ammunition to his political opponents, who say he is not tough enough. But escalating to an all-out conflict with Hamas could also be politically risky if rockets begin raining down on Israeli towns and a wider war breaks out with Israeli casualties.
With the election campaign being closely fought, it is crucial for Netanyahu to demonstrate he is a safe, not soft, hand on security. His main election rival, Benny Gantz, is a former chief of staff of the Israeli army, and Gantz’s party, which leads Likud in the polls, includes two other candidates on the ticket who held that position.
As violence has flared, Netanyahu’s campaign has tried to redirect attention toward his diplomatic wins. As the prime minister left Washington on Monday, he vented his frustration that the media had focused on the Gaza flare-up, which leaves him open to criticism, rather than on his success in winning President Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights.
Among those pressing for a more muscular response is Naftali Bennett, the Israeli education minister who heads the New Right party. Bennett said he spent Monday night in the southern city of Ashdod and met with children and parents who are “filled with anxiety and who are not able to fall asleep at night or function day to day because of the situation.”
“The army must be given the order to defeat Hamas, to uproot Hamas, to destroy its ability to harm the residents of the south — not to talk about deterrence, but to take Hamas’s sword and break it,” he said. “In such a situation, Netanyahu will have our full backing. This is something which must be done, and we have to do it.”
Even some members of Netanyahu’s party called for a tougher response. In an interview with Israel’s Army Radio, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said she was waiting for Netanyahu to decide Israel’s next steps, but she was in favor of targeted assassinations of senior Hamas officials.
The latest hostilities began Monday night, when a rocket that the Israeli military said was manufactured and fired by Hamas slammed into a house just outside Tel Aviv. Seven family members, who were making their way to their fortified safe room at the time, were injured.
In response, Israeli fighter jets struck several targets in Gaza, including the office of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, a secret headquarters for Hamas military intelligence and a five-story building housing internal security offices. Palestinian militants responded with more rockets, with one hitting a house in the southern city of Sderot.
Airstrikes and rocket fire continued until the early hours of Tuesday morning. A senior Israeli official stressed that Israel had delivered the final blow before the period of calm and that, while restraint would be met with restraint, there was no cease-fire and reports of one from the Palestinian side were not to be trusted.
Khader Habib, a senior official with Islamic Jihad, Gaza’s second-biggest faction, said a “verbal understanding” on a cease-fire had been reached through mediators, and Israel had committed to it, but “Netanyahu does not want to appear as if he signed a truce.”
Neither Islamic Jihad nor Hamas claimed responsibility for Tuesday night’s rocket.
Last year, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman quit the government after Netanyahu agreed to a cease-fire following the most intense rocket fire from Gaza since 2014. The barrage was sparked by a botched Israeli raid into the Gaza Strip.
Israel and Hamas agreed in October to a six-month deal to allow $25 million in Qatari funding into Gaza each month to pay for fuel and salaries. In return, Hamas agreed to restrain weekly demonstrations near the border fence and put a stop to the campaign of flaming kites, which were being launched into Israel. But negotiations over a long-term deal have stalled. Hamas, which is facing protests over falling standards of living in Gaza, has tried to divert attention again toward the conflict with Israel, analysts say.
Still, neither side wants a war, said Mukhaimer Abu Sa’ada, a professor of political science at al-Azhar University in Gaza.
Netanyahu could face another test this weekend, when Hamas is organizing demonstrations for the first anniversary of the protests along the Gaza border fence with Israel.
Shimrit Meir, an analyst on Arab affairs, said there has appeared to be an established mechanism for de-escalation each time there is an outbreak of violence.
“It works every time. Hamas likes to define where to start and where to end. When they’ve had enough, they just call the Egyptians, and the Egyptians do their thing,” she said, referring to Egypt’s efforts to arrange a cease-fire.
Meir said that this time, however, the situation is more volatile because of the approaching election and anniversary.
Hazem Balousha in Gaza contributed to this report.