Ground invasion of Gaza by Israel more likely as rocket attacks continue

Hamas HQ hit on fourth day of Israeli air strikes on Gaza.

Speculation is growing that a ground invasion by Israel in Gaza is becoming increasingly likely. The BBC is reporting that Israel has put 75,000 reservists on stand-by, and deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon told CNN that an invasion could happen before the end of the weekend:

"We don't want to get into Gaza if we don't have to. But if they keep firing at us … a ground operation is still on the cards," he said. "If we see in the next 24 to 36 hours more rockets launched at us, I think that would be the trigger."

Watch his interview in full:

Israeli air strikes are continuing on the Gaza strip. Reuters reports that the office building of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh - where he had met on Friday with the Egyptian prime minister - was hit, as was the house of a Hamas leader in Jabaliya, north of Gaza City.

Egypt's president, Mohammed Morsi, called the attacks on Gaza "a blatant aggression against humanity" and said that "Egypt will not leave Gaza on its own". President Obama has praised Egypt's efforts to "deescalate" the tensions in the region.

The hundreds of tunnels in the south of Gaza, which are used to smuggle food, fuel and weapons from Egypt, have also been targeted by Israeli air strikes, the Guardian reports. The Israeli military say that over 800 targets have been struck since the operation began (Associated Press). It's thought that about 500 rockets have been fired towards Israel.

At least 38 Palestinians and three Israelis have died since Israel killed Hamas's military commander on Wednesday.

A plume of smoke rises over Gaza during an Israeli air strike, as seen from Sderot. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.