The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, ordered that air strikes on Gaza be as "surgical" as possible in a bid to prevent the three days of renewed violence across the Gaza border escalating out of control, officials said yesterday.
The apparent attempt to lower the temperature of the conflict, triggered by last Thursday's attack by gunmen which left eight Israelis dead, came during a day of behind-the-scenes diplomatic activity -- involving the Egyptian government among others -- aimed at securing an agreed truce or lull in the cycle of Israeli air strikes and Palestinian rocket attacks.
The government appeared for now to be resisting increasingly bellicose calls from opposition politicians for a much wider military operation in Gaza.
Shaul Mofaz, a prominent member of the Kadima party who chairs the influential Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, said Israel needed to take further steps against Gaza's ruling faction Hamas and needed to "topple their infrastructures".
According to his spokesman, Mark Regev, Mr Netanyahu told officials that Israeli air strikes had two aims: to stop the attacks on southern Israeli families within reach of rockets from Gaza, which killed an Israeli man in Beersheba on Saturday night; and to target those responsible for the rocket attacks. Mr Netanyahu had instructed his generals to "make every effort not to harm Gaza civilians, who are not our enemy", Mr Regev said.
Yet Mr Regev added that the failure of the moderate Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to condemn Thursday's attack raised "serious questions about (the Palestinians') readiness for independence and their commitment to fighting terror."
Mr Regev said that the international community should resist attempts to secure formal backing for a Palestinian state at the UN next month. The Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), the militant group blamed by Israel for last Thursday's attack, appeared to cast a shadow over immediate hopes of any ceasefire by the Palestinian factions.
Its spokesman, Abu Mujahed, was quoted by a Palestinian news agency as saying the group would not make a ceasefire agreement with the "Zionist enemy".
At least 15 Palestinians -- mainly militants but also including a doctor and three children under 14 -- have been killed in Israeli air strikes since Thursday's attack.
But in a more limited response to the Beersheba attack than had been expected, Israel launched three air strikes on Gaza yesterday, one of which was on a Hamas outpost, and injured seven people.
Missiles from the two other air raids bombed the training camp of a smaller faction and an open area in central Gaza, causing no reported casualties.