Defense chiefs warm to idea of multinational force in Gaza
Policy-makers are undecided whether deployment should come before or after major ground operation.
Defense officials are pushing the idea of a multinational force in the Gaza Strip, but are undecided on whether they prefer such a unit to be deployed relatively soon or only after a major ground operation by the Israel Defense Forces.
A large Israeli offensive may be inevitable if the situation in the Strip continues to deteriorate.
An Israeli soldier was killed and another seriously wounded on Thursday when Palestinian militants blew up an IDF jeep patrolling the Gaza border. Two other soldiers were lightly wounded.
A major offensive could include reoccupying parts of northern Gaza and occupying or imposing a closure on the area around the city of Rafah in the south of the enclave.
This reoccupation would be expected to last about a month, after which the army would round up fugitives and seize weapons and materiel over six or seven months. IDF sources say such an operation would gradually reduce the rocket fire and could delay the increase in Hamas' military power, which is based on smuggling from Egypt via Rafah.
The deployment of a multinational force in Gaza is part of the defense establishment's "exit plan" after a big operation. The idea was raised in unofficial talks with leaders of Arab and Muslim countries, some of whom viewed the issue favorably. Israeli officials believe that the participation of Arab states in a multinational force would help to legitimize it in the eyes of the Palestinian public.
But members of the General Staff said it was better to try less-drastic moves than a major ground operation before deciding to occupy parts of the Strip. One of the proposals discussed was integrating Egyptian troops in a small multinational force that would operate at the border crossings in the hope of sparing Israel a major military operation.
IDF officers have recently checked with international aid organizations in Gaza to find out whether they would be able to help Gaza residents during massive fighting and assist the tens of thousands of refugees expected to flee the fighting to Sinai, the Egyptian side of Rafah and the town of El-Arish in Sinai.
Fighting escalated on the Gaza border Thursday as at least eight Qassam rockets were fired at Sderot. One man was moderately injured and another lightly injured.
An Israeli Air Force strike in the northern Gaza Strip killed an Islamic Jihad militant.
Islamic Jihad and a local Gazan group, the Abu Reish Brigades, took responsibility for the attack on Israeli troops near Ein Hashlosha.
The five Hamas activists whose assassination by Israel sparked the latest escalation in the Gaza Strip had been planning a large terror attack, defense sources said. The five had returned from training camps in Iran, Syria and Lebanon and supervised preparations for the operation, which was to include attacking several military vehicles moving along the fence surrounding the Gaza Strip.
It is possible that in the commotion these attacks would have created, Hamas planned to penetrate into Israel and kidnap soldiers or civilians, the sources said.
IDF sources suspect that after the breach in the Egyptian border at Rafah in January, Hamas received missiles such as the Kornet and Concourse, which Hezbollah successfully operated in the last war in Lebanon.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders Thursday met Egyptian intelligence officers in El-Arish to discuss the possibility of opening the Rafah crossing and reaching a temporary cease-fire with Israel.
A Hamas delegate said after the meeting that his organization will agree to a cease-fire if Israel halts its fire and removes the blockade on the Gaza Strip. Islamic Jihad demanded that the cease-fire include the West Bank and an Israeli undertaking to stop rounding up fugitives.
The frequent changes in Israel's moves in the Gaza Strip this week raised tensions in the cabinet and between the government and IDF. Chief of Staff Gabi Asheknazi decided to take Givati Brigade troops out of the northern Gaza Strip on Sunday night, deciding that the operation had achieved all it could.
This led to a curt exchange between Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who protested the discrepancy between the decision to continue the operation on Sunday and ending it that night.