As Israeli forces continue to pound the northern Gaza Strip with up to 300 artillery shells a day, Israeli officials have announced that the military is considering re-entering the Palestinian territory in a ground assault.

Israel will reoccupy the Gaza Strip if Hamas does not put an end to the cross-border shelling being carried out by other (non-Hamas) resistance groups, a senior military commander says.

Major-General Yoav Galant, head of Israel’s southern command, said he was considering a range of options, including the possibility of re-entering Gaza.  Galant told the Maariv daily on Friday: "We’re talking about more aggressive military activity. If the price we have to pay becomes unreasonable as a result of increased (Palestinian) attacks, then we shall have to take all steps, including occupying the Gaza Strip.

"It could be anything from a partial occupation of the Gaza Strip to a full occupation."  He said his plans had already been approved by senior officials, including Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli defense minister.

Israel "disengaged" from the Gaza Strip last year, moving the 8,000 Israeli settlers who were illegally living there into illegal settlements in the Palestinian West Bank, where 250,000 Israeli settlers live illegally on Palestinian land.  But the Israeli military still maintains military bases in the Gaza Strip, and controls all borders, forbidding the movement of Palestinians who live within Gaza.

Israeli sources quoted senior army commanders on Friday as saying troops were being trained for an offensive in the Gaza Strip as part of contingency plans the army had drawn up, adding that such an operation was unlikely to be implemented in the near future as it could undermine international backing for Israel since Hamas took over the Palestinian government on March 29.

A spokesperson for the Israeli army said that the number of homemade shells fired into Israel had increased in the period following the Palestinian election of the Hamas party in January — the shells, made of metal pipes and dynamite, cause panic but rarely hit any Israeli targets, as they are crudely made and have no aiming system.  No Israeli injuries have been reported from Palestinian shells since January, although it is reported that a dog died of shock.  In the same time period, 274 Palestinians have been injured by Israeli shelling and gunfire, and 77 have been killed.

Dan Halutz, Israel’s army chief, said that his preferred method for attacking Palestinians was by using air strikes, as such a method does not put Israeli soldiers into danger.  Human rights groups have noted that by firing missiles into neighborhoods in Gaza, the most crowded place on earth, Israel increases the chances of killing Palestinian civilians.

The strikes on Gaza have killed 21 Palestinians in the last two weeks. Among them was a seven-year-old girl killed when an artillery shell hit her home, tearing her body apart and seriously injuring five of her family members, in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya.

Since the election of the Hamas party in Palestine in January, Israeli officials have argued that there is no partner on the Palestinian side on whom they can depend to crack down on Palestinian resistance.  "There is no-longer anyone to mediate during a flare-up, neither the Egyptians nor the Americans. Consequently, they speak with [homemade shells] and we respond with 155mm shells," it quoted the officer as saying.

Israel withdrew from Gaza last summer, ending 38 years of military occupation there, and shifting its focus for colonization on the West Bank, the other Palestinian Occupied Territory.  Israeli officials are apparently reluctant to re-occupy Gaza after spending millions of dollars to withdraw and overcoming staunch political opposition.

In addition, Israel is pleased with the international pressure on Hamas and fears that increased military action could jeopardize that.

Although Hamas has been observing a truce with Israel for more than year, it has said it will not prevent other groups from carrying out attacks. Certain members of the Hamas party were quoted as saying that a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv this week was justified.

Israel says it holds Hamas responsible for the violence, and has pledged to assassinate the leadership of the party.  Such extra-judicial assassinations, standard procedure for Israeli forces, are considered illegal under international law, and are a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, of which Israel is a signatory.