Israel launched its biggest incursion into Palestinian territory for more than two years on 25 January, three days before Israelis go to the polls, when tanks backed by helicopter gunships moved to within yards of Gaza City's main square. Twelve Palestinians were killed in the raid, and many more injured. The Israeli army said that the operation was directed against sites used to manufacture and launch rockets, following an increase in the frequency of such attacks. About 40,000 people marched through the streets at a mass funeral the following day and Hamas promised revenge for the deaths. Israeli forces also imposed a complete closure of Palestinian areas, preventing any entry into Israel, until after the 28 January general election, for fear of terrorist attacks. Soldiers will guard polling stations. On the day of the Likud party primaries in November, several voters were killed when gunmen opened fire at a polling station in the northern Israeli town of Beit Shean (MEED 28:11:02
). The escalation in violence in the occupied territories is likely to boost Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Likud party's election performance, since the party generally enjoys more support the greater voters' security fears. 'It is quite clear that this is the election card with which Sharon intends to continue his election campaign,' said Palestinian minister Yasser Abed Rabbo. However, latest polls predict that Likud will only win about one third of the vote, and since Labour leader Amram Mitzna has ruled out joining a national unity coalition with Sharon, the Prime Minister will be forced to assemble a government with two or more of the smaller religious and right-wing parties. A Ha'artez poll on 27 January gives Likud 30-31 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, Labour 18-19 seats, Shinui 14 seats and Shas 13 seats. About 37 per cent of those polled said that they would prefer to see a secular national unity government, 27 per cent favoured a national unity government including religious parties, while only 17 per cent wanted a right-wing coalition.
Commenting on the Gaza City raid on Israeli army radio, Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz said that government had considered, and was still considering, the possibility of permanently taking over the Gaza Strip. He also said that a series of operations would be carried out to put an end to Palestinian rocket attacks from the northern Gaza area.