A top Israeli security official on Sunday confirmed the worst fear of many: While a six-month ceasefire with Hamas-ruled Gaza had resulted in relative calm, it had also allowed the terrorist enclave to threaten a far larger portion of southern Israel.
With advanced Russian and Iranian-made missile brought into Gaza over the past six months, some 800,000 Israelis are now within range of Hamas and its allied terror groups, Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) chief Yuval Diskin reported at the weekly cabinet meeting.
The biggest of the missiles, the 122-millimeter Grad, has a range of 25 miles, meaning it can easily reach major Israeli population centers like Beersheva, Ashdod, Ashkelon and Kiryat Gat.
Diskin said he is not certain how many of these missiles Hamas currently possesses, but it is enough to put nearly a million Israelis on alert.
Cities like Beersheva, that previously believed they were well beyond the range of the terrorist rocket crews, are now scrambling to set up early warning systems and inspect the condition of local bomb shelters.
A number of high-ranking Israeli security experts, including Diskin, warned Israel's political leadership against entering into a ceasefire with Hamas in the first place precisely because it would enable the terror group to bolster its military capabilities unhindered by Israeli intervention.
But Defense Minister Ehud Barak continued to insist this week that the ceasefire had not been a mistake, even though the Palestinians had repeatedly violated it and Hamas had cynically used it to bring more Israelis within range of its weapons.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, too, defended his refusal to act against the terrorist build-up, and criticized those ministers demanding harsher military action.
With the new threats and renewed heavy rocket fire on southern Israel, both Olmert and Barak say they have ordered the army to prepare for serious action in Gaza.
Israel even launched an international public relations campaign on Sunday that appeared aimed at laying the groundwork for an Israeli invasion of Gaza.
The effort was kicked off with a strongly-worded letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon insisting that Hamas is solely responsible for the escalation of violence in and around Gaza, and that Israel will not allow itself to be held hostage by the terrorists.
But senior army officers told Ha'aretz on Sunday afternoon that they were yet to receive orders to prepare for a major operation in Gaza.
Another consequence of the ceasefire pointed out months ago by Diskin and others is that Hamas defenses are now much stronger, meaning that a ground operation by Israel will result in far more casualties.
According to intelligence reports, Hamas spent the last six months acquiring new weapons and training for its 10,000-man Gaza army. A network of bunkers, tunnels and fortifications was also created to help Hamas fighters inflict maximum damage on the Israelis.
Confident in his group's position, Gaza-based Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar invited the Israeli army to invade at its convenience.
"If they want to [invade] - by all means," Zahar said in an interview with a Nazareth radio station.
But the Hamas chief doubted that Israel would actually do anything, noting that "for three years we've been hearing comments about an Israeli invasion into the Gaza Strip."