Israeli representatives around the world are preparing the groundwork for a PR and diplomatic campaign that will accompany an IDF ground operation in the Gaza Strip.
The final decision on whether to launch such an operation has not yet been taken, but the government is preparing itself for all eventualities, including an immediate escalation.
A barrage of Kassam rockets and three IDF retaliatory attacks at the weekend signalled the end of the six-month ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.
On Monday, Hamas announced a temporary 24-hour ceasefire after heeding calls from the Egyptian government, but sporadic firing continued.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak said that he had instructed the IDF to prepare for an operation in Gaza and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni began a series of calls to her opposite numbers in crucial countries.
She told Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abu el-Gheit that “the situation is worsening and Israel has the responsibility and duty to defend its citizens, and cannot stand aside”. She is to visit Cairo on Thursday for emergency talks with the Egyptian leadership.
Ms Livni’s statements were just the tip of a major effort by the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office to prepare the international community and public opinion for an Israeli offensive.
“It is important to work the whole time on preparing the public in Israel and around the world for a new situation,” said Yarden Vatikay, the head of the Information Directorate in the Prime Minister’s Office.
“There is a growing understanding today outside Israel about the true character of Hamas, and how they have been using the past six months to prepare their attacks on Israeli civilians. We have to intensify now our efforts with the international media corps and diplomats. There has been an asymmetry over the past few days in the reporting with a large emphasis on Palestinian suffering due to the blockade of Gaza.
“We won’t win in the suffering stakes but we have to try to move the focus to the Hamas terror attacks against our civilians.”
Mr Vatikay would not comment on the likelihood of an IDF operation but said: “We hear what our leadership is saying and understand we have to prepare for every eventuality and an immediate escalation.”
The Information Directorate held a special exercise on Monday for the government’s press offices, which simulated a serious attack on the civilian targets from Gaza and formulated media responses for the different scenarios.
“It will be very hard for the political leadership not to order an operation if the Hamas attacks continue,” said a senior official, “not least because of the impending elections.”
Ehud Barak tried to deny this political aspect when he said on Sunday: “I suggest we do not open a competition on the eve of elections on who likes Hamas and who doesn’t. We all want to see Hamas beaten.
And an Israeli diplomat said this week: “For the past few days, we have been trying to prepare both ministers and politicians in the west, and the major media outlets, for the eventuality of an IDF attack.
“The problem is that while things are still relatively quiet, there is little media interest, especially over the Christmas season. If things suddenly take a turn for the worse — and that can very likely happen — we will have very little time to explain what we are doing.”
In an unusually urgent development, Israel’s United Nation’s delegation sent letters on Sunday to the Secretary General and the Security Council President warning that Israel would act if the Hamas attacks continued.
“If we do have to launch an operation,” said one Israeli defence official, “this could be the best timing, before a new US administration gets in and over Christmas.”
Hamas leader Mahmoud a-Zahar said on Sunday: “We have been hearing about a big Israeli operation for three years and nothing has happened.
“Israel is playing with fire like a boy who smokes a cigarette for the first time, coughs, chokes and stops on his own.”