KIBBUTZ NAHAL OZ – In following most major media coverage of the events here the past few days, one would think Israel has been conducting a massive assault against the Gaza Strip in response to the attack Sunday of an Israeli military station and the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier.
In actuality, the Jewish state’s response in Gaza thus far has been mostly a show. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has every reason politically to ensure things don’t escalate. Whether they do at this point is largely up to Hamas and the group’s Iranian and Syrian backers.
Some Israeli ground troops entered the southern Gaza Strip but have not been authorized to conduct any operations there other than to remain on the ground. The Israeli Air Force conducted a few surgical strikes of empty training camps and a bridge. Artillery was fired today at vacated sections of northern and southern Gaza, with one round hitting an electric facility. The artillery fire was in response to Palestinian rocket attacks today on Jewish communities near the Gaza border.
Troops may soon make their way into northern Gaza, but defense officials say these units, too, are not authorized to do very much. The incursion to the north has been delayed reportedly due to diplomatic movement regarding the hostage situation. Should the IDF enter the north, heavy Palestinian resistance is widely expected. The areas there are ripe with terror cells.
Terrorist leaders already announced they have placed booby traps “and other surprises” all along the northern routes.
Israel’s operation in Gaza currently is aimed at pressuring the Hamas government to release the kidnapped soldier, 19-year old French-Israeli citizen Gilad Shalit, and at sealing off the Gaza Strip to ensure Shalit is not transported to the bordering Egyptian Sinai desert, which is saturated with al-Qaida linked terror cells sympathetic to the Palestinian ploy.
The IDF maintains Shalit is being held in Khan Yunis, an overpopulated city in the central-to-southern Gaza Strip. Defense Minister Amir Peretz has warned if the Israeli captive is not released, a major assault may be launched against Khan Yunis, possibly including house-to-house searches in certain areas.
Defense officials for months have been petitioning Olmert to authorize a large-scale operation in Gaza to help stop the Palestinian rockets regularly fired from the territory aimed at nearby Jewish communities. Since Israel evacuated the Strip last August, more than 800 rockets have been launched by Palestinians. An average of 40 rockets per week were fired the past month at Sderot, an pre-1967 Israeli town about three miles from Gaza.
Olmert has restricted the Israeli army thus far to responding to rocket fire with aerial and artillery bombardments of Qassam launch sites, but the actions have failed to stop or even stem the flow of Qassam attacks. Instead, the terrorists simply have moved their rocket-firing sites from peripheral areas in Gaza to heavily populated Gaza towns, prompting some of the recent Israeli retaliation to cause Palestinian civilian casualties.
Senior defense leaders hope to use the current Israeli ground incursion into Gaza to cleanse hot zones there of terror cells and Qassam missile factories.
But an Israeli escalation in Gaza is unlikely. It doesn’t fit Olmert’s political objectives.
His Kadima party won elections last March by a slim plurality campaigning on the platform of enforcing an Israeli withdrawal from Judea and Samaria, which Olmert says will enhance Israel’s security by separating from the Palestinians.
Kadima’s founder, former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, ten months ago evacuated Gaza also promising enhanced security.
Since the Gaza withdrawal was carried out, rockets have been flying, Hamas has been elected to power and both Israeli and Palestinian officials have stated al-Qaida has infiltrated the territory. Neighboring Egypt recently announced the terrorists who carried out April’s deadly triple-bomb blasts in the Sinai resort town of Dahab trained for the operation in the Gaza Strip with local Palestinians. It said Israel’s withdrawal has been threatening Egyptian security.
Military and political leaders, including senior Gaza commanders, Kadima government cabinet members and former defense ministers have been calling on Israel to reoccupy parts of Gaza to stop the Qassam firings.
The final blow to the Kadima claim of the Gaza withdrawal enhancing Israel’s security would be delivered if the IDF is ordered to conduct a major operation inside the territory. Olmert realizes this and is for now loathe to authorize much more than the current blockade of Gaza’s borders.
A terror threat that must be met with military force in Gaza would highlight the security risks of Olmert’s proposed evacuation of most of Judea and Samaria – mountainous terrain within rocket firing range of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the country’s international airport.
Also, Sharon told the Israeli public that the international community would support anti-terror operations in Gaza if the Palestinians dared to use areas vacated by Israel to stage attacks.
Olmert repeatedly has stated a withdrawal in Judea and Samaria would be met with similar international understanding regarding the necessity of Israeli operations there, should the Palestinians use vacated territory to attack.
But as WND reported today, the international community the past 48-hours has almost unanimously called on Israel to retreat from Gaza. This while ground troops in Gaza have not even conducted any sort of operation other than to enter the territory. If Olmert orders a major Gaza attack and the international community balks, the Israeli public will take note and may be reluctant to support a Judea and Samaria withdrawal.
Already Olmert’s poll numbers are down. A survey conducted last week found 70 percent of Israelis now oppose a Judea and Samaria withdrawal and most here who supported last summer’s evacuation of the Gaza Strip now say it was a bad idea. Another poll commissioned by the Haaretz newspaper and released two weeks ago found only 35 percent of the Israeli public is pleased with Olmert’s performance as prime minister. Israeli leaders typically enjoy wide public support in the early stages of their terms.
Olmert also needs to contend with regional issues. Violence in Gaza could prompt street protests across the Muslim world. The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest Egyptian opposition group, already has threatened riots in Egypt and Jordan unless Israel leaves Gaza.
Olmert, though, may have no choice but to authorize soon the IDF to act in some larger capacity. It all depends on Hamas. If Shalit is killed, the Israeli public will demand retribution. If Palestinian groups attack IDF troops already in Gaza, the military will need to respond.
Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades terror organizations also have threatened to carry out suicide attacks inside Israel unless the ground troops retreat. Such attacks would easily complicate matters.
As well, Israel is on high alert along its northern border with Lebanon, where Hezbollah guerillas are stationed with more than10,000 short and medium range missiles pointed at Israeli towns. There is fear primary Hezbollah backers Syria and Iran will attempt to escalate the conflict by drawing Israel into border clashes.
Syria and Iran – the largest sponsors of Hamas – are keys to Hamas actions. Both seek to use Israeli-Palestinian violence to distract from mounting international pressures against their respective regimes. The G8 summit is soon set to focus on Iran. A war in Gaza could dominate summit discussions instead. Iran and Syria both need Gaza violence.
In fact Israeli security officials earlier this week told WorldNetDaily they have information the terrorists who carried out the Hamas raid and Shalit kidnapping were trained by Iranian Revolutionary Guard units and Hezbollah guerillas. The information comes in part from a Hamas terrorist allegedly involved in the plot who was arrested by Israeli forces in Gaza the day before the kidnapping.
Overall Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who is thought to have ordered Sunday’s Hamas attack that started the whole ordeal, resides in Syria and is said to be subordinate to the Damascus and Tehran regimes. Diplomatic mediators involved in efforts to free Shalit told reporters it is Meshaal’s reluctance that has been the main obstacle. Meshaal could order a Hamas escalation, which would demand an Israeli response.
Meanwhile, here at Nahal Oz, the main military station that borders Gaza, troops say they want to be put to work. Thousands of Israeli soldiers, mostly from two elite IDF brigades, were bused here two days ago and have been ordered to stand ready for a ground invasion.
“We want to go get Shalit already,” said one soldier.
A senior commander involved in operational planning told WND, “Everyone is waiting to see if Olmert will order what must be done.”
He said it was Israel’s failure to respond forcefully to the Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza the past 10 months that led to Sunday’s Hamas operation.
“Since August, the rockets have been regularly fired and attacks have been staged from Gaza,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
“The defense establishment has been calling for a harsh response, but not much has been ordered aside from surgical strikes. It was the loss of Israeli deterrence that emboldened the terror groups to perform their daring operation this week. Deterrence must be restored.”
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