Playing Defense, Not Offense

The IDF operation in the Gaza Strip, in which Staff Sergeant Arbel Reich was killed yesterday, did not exceed the limits of the campaign being carried out now by the army against Hamas and Islamic Jihad gunmen.

The clashes with the Islamist organizations and their auxiliaries are taking place, at this stage, at a distance of two kilometers west of the fence that surrounds the Gaza Strip and extends only to the outskirts of the built-up areas. By comparison, during Operation "Summer Rains," the extensive operation in the Gaza Strip following the abduction of Gilad Shalit in June last year, IDF units at times reached as far as the beaches of the Gaza Strip.

Still, there has been a certain change in the activities in the Gaza Strip, which began following the Hamas attempt to carry out a showcase attack on Independence Day. At that time, Hamas carried out a broad Qassam rocket offensive, apparently in an effort to provide cover for a more prominent attack that did not succeed. Following the operation, and for the first time since last November when relative calm was restored - at least with Hamas, the political leadership and the General Staff authorized the Southern Command to carry out operations penetrating deeper into the Strip.

The official code name of these operations is "Denying Threats." Its meaning: an attempt to prevent attacks close to the fence surrounding the Gaza Strip. These operations are inherently limited. The primary concern at this time is the possibility that terrorists will succeed in crossing the fence and entering Israeli communities, and kill civilians. At the same time, the IDF is still concerned about the possibility that efforts will be made to abduct more soldiers.

The operations are mainly focused on destroying militant groups operating near the fence - involved in shooting incidents, mortar attacks, tunnels or explosive devices.

But the main purpose of the operations is to provide the Shin Bet with more intelligence information. The limitations on Israeli intelligence-gathering from the Gaza Strip are well known - and the most blatant example of this shortcoming is the continued difficulty acquiring precise intelligence on the location of abducted soldier Gilad Shalit.

It is difficult for the Shin Bet to recruit informers when it lacks direct contact with the Palestinian population - and when there are nearly no arrests being made.

Over the past two months, the Shin Bet has been getting a slightly better picture of what is going on in the Gaza Strip following the arrest of several dozen Palestinians.

Nonetheless, this is the sort of initiated activity that is taking place in a defensive format - relatively close to the fence.

What is the contribution of new Defense Minister Ehud Barak to what is going on in the Gaza Strip? So far, not much. The new policy in the Gaza Strip began before he assumed office.

During the recent weekly operations, 30 Palestinian gunmen have been killed. According to the army, not a single Palestinian civilian was killed. Yesterday, the first soldier was killed in an operation in the Gaza Strip - the first since the beginning of the year.

In a little over a year since the abduction of Shalit, six soldiers have been killed, including two during the attack that resulted in Shalit's kidnapping. This is the price that Israel will continue to pay for limited offensive operations, which aim to prevent bigger Palestinian attacks.