The offensive dashed hopes that Israel's recently completed Gaza withdrawal would help restart peace talks and left a seven-month-old cease-fire on the brink of collapse. The fighting also raised already intense pressure on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to confront militants.
The Israeli military was conducting sweeping arrests of Palestinian wanted men in the West Bank early Sunday, military sources said. The military has arrested more than 200 Palestinian militants CBS News correspondent Robert Berger reports.
The Israeli Security Cabinet, a group of senior officials led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, approved the military operation at an emergency meeting late Saturday after Hamas militants fired nearly 40 rockets at Israeli towns. The rocket barrage, which lightly wounded six Israelis, was the Islamic group's first major attack since the Gaza pullout.
"It was decided to launch a prolonged and constant attack on Hamas," said Maj. Gen. Yisrael Ziv, the army's head of operations, hinting that Israel was preparing to resume targeted attacks against top Hamas leaders. Asked whether the leaders were in danger, he said: "Let them decide for themselves."
"Operation First Rain" will include air strikes and will culminate in a ground assault, unless the Palestinian Authority takes action to prevent rocket attacks, Berger reports.
Israel killed dozens of Hamas leaders, including its founder, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, in targeted killings during four years of violence. Following the February cease-fire, Israel suspended the practice.
The crisis erupted ahead of a major challenge to Sharon's leadership of the hardline Likud Party and could strengthen the hand of Sharon's main rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has warned the Gaza pullout would encourage militant attacks. A Likud vote Monday could determine whether Sharon quits the party — a move that is would likely bring early elections and prompt Sharon to form a new centrist party to capture mainstream voters.