By Mike Mount
Thousands of Israeli troops with tanks and armored vehicles are poised on Gaza's borders ready to move in if Israel believes there is no chance for a cease-fire in its conflict with Hamas.
The Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, told reporters Monday at a briefing at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC that Israel would like to avoid a ground invasion, but war planning is complete and they are ready to move in if necessary.
But Israel, which continued to press its air offensive against Gaza militants for a sixth day on Monday, is said to be well aware that a ground invasion would carry broad risks.
Israel learned that from its 2008 war in Gaza when it lost the support of the international community. Air force and ground troops then poured on superior firepower, hitting numerous civilian targets in an effort to wipe out militants and their infrastructure. Nearly 1,300 people were killed.
A United Nations investigation concluded that the Israeli military committed war crimes during that conflict, which created a major diplomatic problem for Israel.
Carrying the memory of that experience and a parliamentary election just two months away, the Israeli government is mindful of potential international and domestic consequences of a ground invasion, those watching the situation closely said.
"Higher Palestinian casualties could lead to an erosion of international support for Israel's right to defend itself from the Hamas rocket attacks," according to Haim Malka, a senior fellow at Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu is hesitant for a ground operation because of the political liability and the risks that such an operation carries for Israel," Malka said.
Palestinian health officials said 104 people have died and another 860 have been wounded in Gaza since Israel began its offensive in response to what it characterized as incessant rocket attacks by militants. Israeli officials say three people have died and 68 have been wounded in Israel as the result of rocket fire from Gaza.
Public opinion polls in Israel also appeared reluctant to deeper military involvement.
According to the Jerusalem Post, Israelis expressed strong backing for the ongoing military air operation, but were hesitant to add a ground offensive. The paper reported on Monday that 85% of Israelis believed in starting the military operation.
When asked how the government should proceed, 45% of the survey respondents favored continuing air strikes while 25% recommended a ground offensive. Some 22% said Israel should seek a cease fire.
The intention of the air assault is to weaken or destroy the capability of Hamas to launch rockets into Israel, according to an Israeli official.
Militants in Gaza have fired nearly 1,000 rockets at Israel since the conflict began, the Israel Defense Forces said Monday. Israel has targeted more than 1,300 sites in its bombing campaign, according to the IDF.
Ambassador Oren said at the current rate of activity military action could last 45 days to 100 days. He said Hamas has 10,000 to 11,000 rockets left, but would not say how many Israel has destroyed, though Israel has fired just over 1,100.
When asked by reporters what Israel wanted from Hamas Oren said, “Guarantees against the return to the status quo.”
Negotiations in Egypt to try to halt to the fighting have yet to yield a breakthrough. There was a 50-50 chance the mission would be expanded to a ground invasion, one government official told Israel's Haaretz newspaper.
In an interview on Israeli television, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said on Monday no option had been ruled out, but at this stage "everything depends on the action of Hamas."
Former Israeli General Dan Harel said Israel is running out of targets that are away from population centers while Hamas leaders and other targeted individuals have now gone underground or are in mosques or among the civilian population.
"These are targets Israel will not strike because it is morally wrong," Harel said.
If that is indeed Israel's position, it also lessens the chance of a ground invasion that would no doubt target the locations of Hamas leaders and weapons in sensitive areas.
"The most likely scenario is that there is a cease-fire, hopefully brokered by the United States and Egypt, and then we all go back to exactly where we were before," says Reza Aslan, author of "No God but God," which looks at how the Arab Spring movement will ultimately play out.
"In a couple years, we start this process all over again. At a certain point, Israel is going to have to recognize that Hamas, whether it likes it or not, is the actual government in Gaza. And it's going to have to figure out a long-term solution to maintaining a viable ceasefire and that might include actually easing the blockade against Gaza," he told CNN on Monday.
According to Haaretz, Netanyhau, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman were updated on Monday by an Israel emissary who had just returned from a talk with Egyptian general intelligence officials.
"The deliberations centered on the demands made by Hamas and on the Egyptian proposals for compromise," according to the newspaper, quoting an Israeli official.
However, Malka said Hamas could make a ground decision easy for Israel if it were to launch a "large wave of longer range rockets that hit the Tel Aviv area or a shorter range rocket that hits and causes a high number of civilian casualties."
The Palestinian territory has been under a crippling economic embargo since Hamas, a militant fundamentalist Islamic organization, took political control from the Palestinian Authority in a 2007 election.