Israel views the attacks on those cities as a move by Hamas to widen the conflict. But Palestinians say Israel is using the attacks as a pretext to launch a larger offensive that it has been planning for months.
Defense analysts in Israel, however, say that the escalation of the past few days, however intense, is not the full-scale offensive on Gaza the Israeli military and political establishment has been discussing, because Israel still hasn't come to a decision about how to deal with the situation.
A poll last week indicated that the majority of Israelis would support seeing their government enter into talks with Hamas in order to reach a cease-fire. But the possibility of doing so seemed to be slipping further away as the death toll rises and missile attacks are reaching farther than before.
"It's clear that there is a limit to Israel's ability to absorb the situation," says Jonathan Spyer, an expert on Middle East Affairs at the Inter-Disciplinary Center in Herzliya. "The launching of Grad [Katyusha] missiles on Ashkelon is an unacceptable escalation. But what are the options for a longer-term solution? One is an attempt to reach a cease-fire, and the other is an extended Israeli military invasion in Gaza."
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will be under pressure not to accept a cease-fire with Hamas, he adds, because of the expectation that Hamas has a "poor track record" and will break it when it chooses. Israel has also at times broken cease-fires when it sees a chance to target a wanted militant.