Hardball with Chris Matthews, 11/19/12, 7:00 PM ET

Tension, violence rise as Middle East faces growing crisis

Chris Matthews talks to NBC’s Richard Engel about the situation in Gaza and the escalating tensions in the Middle East.

The Gaza assault: Is Israel practicing for a war against Iran?

Updated

There are growing fears that the fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza could be a test run for an even bigger battle between Israel and Iran.

NBC’s chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel spoke to Hardball host Chris Matthews from Gaza on Monday, where he expressed that concern, and questioned the timing of Israel’s aerial assault.

“Israel really picked the timing. Israel could have gone into a war with Hamas almost at any time [with] its rocket launches as a pretext,” said Engel. “But it chose to do it now. Israel has been testing its Iron Dome defense systems, which would certainly come into play if there was a war with Iran.”

Engel insisted that “Israel’s real enemy is Iran.”  The correspondent added Israel has “been telephoning the houses of neighbors of Hamas militants and telling them to get out of their houses. It has their phone numbers. So there is something suspicious about this. Israel has too much intelligence on Hamas…You have to wonder if there really is a different objective.”

Israel’s airstrikes on Gaza continued for a sixth day on Monday, with at least 91 civilians killed since the bombardment began last week. Hamas responded with a barrage of more than 1,000 missiles into Israel. Israel says its goal is to hit sites being used by Islamist militants who have spent the last several months firing rockets into Israel.

Meanwhile, the two sides say they are trying to reach a peace deal to avoid a ground invasion of Gaza.

The subject of Israel going to war with Iran came up on CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday when Washington Post writer David Ignatius said Israel is testing rockets that would be fired against Iran from Gaza and perhaps Lebanon. “So we may see something with Lebanon soon because it’s a preliminary; this is a, kind of, warm-up round for the real conflagration that’s ahead that involves Iran,” said Ignatius.

The Gaza assault: Is Israel practicing for a war against Iran?

Updated