We might just have a large-scale Gaza operation, folks.
As Hamas drew Ashkelon into the circle of communities coming under heavy rocket attacks, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the Foreign Ministry on Thursday began preparing both Israeli and world opinion for the possibility of a large-scale incursion into Gaza.
Barak, during a series of meetings at the Defense Ministry, said, “We should be prepared for an upswing in hostilities in Gaza. The big ground operation is a reality and it is tangible. We are not eager to embark upon such an operation, but we are not put off by it either.”
According to defense sources, the goals of such an operation – reportedly in the planning stages for weeks if not months – would not “merely” be to reduce the threat of rocket fire and rocket manufacturing in the Gaza Strip, but would also likely entail paralyzing the Hamas government’s ability to operate, and even include “regime change.”
Barak spoke with Quartet envoy Tony Blair and Egyptian intelligence head Omar Suleiman and said Israel could not tolerate the current level of rocket fire in the South without offering a wider response.
Barak also offered hints as to his plans, telling local community leaders gathered at Sapir Academic College outside Sderot that “the solution to Kassams will be a lot quicker than many people think.”
And the Foreign Ministry, in talking points sent to its representatives abroad, instructed them to say that when Israel left the Gaza Strip in 2005 it did so without the intention of ever returning, but that the continuation of terrorist attacks was likely to place the country in a position where it may have no other choice.
The ministry also instructed its representatives to reveal that the Grad missiles that were fired at Ashkelon on Thursday were smuggled through Sinai from Iran.
According to one diplomatic source, stressing the Iranian origin of the missiles showed the importance of aggressive action to stop the smuggling and isolate Hamas from Syria and Iran, which “directs the organization’s terrorist actions.”
“We have warned for a while about the arming of Hamas, and what is happening now is proof of this,” the official said.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni also seemed to be preparing the world for stepped up Israeli action, telling visiting Lithuanian Foreign Minister Petras Vaitiekunas that the international community should “respect” all actions that Israel takes to protects its citizens.
Livni said Israel rejected condemnations and arguments that there were casualties on both sides of the fence, saying “there is no moral equivalence between terrorists and those fighting them, even if during those actions innocent civilians are accidentally killed. In these cases the world should not come to us – there is only one address for the Palestinian situation in Gaza and for what is likely to happen there in the future – and it is Hamas.”
Foreign Minister director-general Aaron Abramovich traveled to Cairo on Thursday for talks with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit about the situation on the Egyptian-Gaza border.
Government officials said that while Abramovich wanted to concentrate on how to combat the arms smuggling across and under the Philadelphi Corridor, Gheit was more interested in talking about how to get the Rafah crossing re-opened. The talks came in preparation for a high level discussion on the situation on the border excepted early next week with the arrival on Tuesday of both US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Suleiman.
In light of the recent tension with Egypt over the situation on the border, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying the Israeli delegation “stressed the strategic importance of the relationship between Israel and Egypt, in enhancing and addressing challenges to peace in the region and promoting peaceful coexistence.”
In a related development, government officials said Israel was not getting “too excited” over an interview Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gave to a Jordanian newspaper that appeared Thursday saying he did not rule out returning to the path of armed “resistance” against Israel.
The official said these comments were aimed at Abbas’s domestic audience and that Abbas should be judged by his deeds – a willingness to negotiate peace – rather than by statements “meant for internal consumption.
In an interview with Al-Dustur, Abbas also took pride that he had been the first to fire a bullet on Israel in 1965 and that his organization, Fatah, had trained Hizbullah. “At this present juncture, I am opposed to armed struggle because we cannot succeed in it, but maybe in the future things will be different,” he said.
Meanwhile, palestinians have reported an IAF strike on the Gaza home of a Popular Resistance Committees leader. If this did occur, I am not sure what Israel was trying to achieve, besides sending a message to the terrorists. But given the IDF has not confirmed the strike, and the general reliability of palestinian sources, I am not convinced this in fact occurred.
Updates (Israel time):
12:10PM: In another possible indication of an imminent large-scale Israeli operation in Gaza, Egyptian Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman has postponed his upcoming trip to Israel, planned for the middle of next week.
12:18PM: A Qassam rocket has scored a direct hit on a Sderot home, with several residents in shock.
1:30PM: Revealing words from a Hamas terrorist:
Hamas and the residents of Gaza closely followed reports of IDF forces assembling in and around the Strip ahead of a possible large-scale ground operation.
An Islamist group source confirmed that the organization was gearing up for battle. “The Israelis will flounder in Gaza as they did in Lebanon and at the end of the process they will once again be defeated and leave,” he told Ynet on Friday.
“We will not play into Israel’s hands. If and when the operation is launched, we will combat it with no more than 20 percent of our manpower. The remaining 80 percent will wait for the Israelis inside Palestinian territory to fight under the conditions that we are familiar with and to show that are forces are still there – in case Israel is thinking of bringing in the leadership it supports, such as (Palestinian President Mahmoud) Abbas,” he said.
What this should show you:
1. The palestinians view unilateral withdrawals (such as from Lebanon) as Israeli defeats.
2. These perceived “defeats” have given them confidence.
3. They enjoy mainly fighting the IDF “inside Palestinian territory.. under the conditions that [they] are familiar with.” In other words, around civilian populations.
1:53PM: The IDF have reportedly fired missiles at a Qassam rocket launching cell near Beit Lahia in northern Gaza.
2:05PM: According to palestinian sources, the IAF has fired at open areas in the northern Gaza Strip.
2:40PM: “Tens of thousands” of palestinians have reportedly participated in a Hamas-organized rally in the Gaza Strip in protest of the ongoing IDF strikes in the enclave.
Of course, you never hear of such rallies in protest of terrorist attacks against Israel. I guess they are too busy passing out or eating candy.
2:52PM: 5 Gazans have been wounded in a “Qassam work accident.”
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