Cabinet gives IDF green light to expand, but not escalate, Gaza Strip operation
Under the cloud of the Winograd Committee report, the security cabinet agreed yesterday to authorize the broadening of Israel Defense Forces operations in the Gaza Strip, so long as these were in keeping with the current policies. Adopting a vague stance, the cabinet postponed to next week further decisions on the nature of the army's offensive response to the Qassam rocket attacks on the Negev.
The cabinet asked the IDF to present it with plans for countering the terror threat from the Gaza Strip on a number of levels: the Qassam rocket attacks, the smuggling of weapons through tunnels from Sinai, and the growing strength of Hamas and other militant organizations.
The security cabinet heard assessments from Shin Bet members, IDF officers - who recommended operations - and Foreign Ministry officials.
Participants in yesterday's meeting said it was obvious that the tone and character of the deliberations had been affected by the Winograd report, which criticized the handling of the Second Lebanon War. They pointed to the detailed surveys and the better prepared agenda handled by National Security Council officials.
However, the same sources noted that an excessive number of options were offered - some of which were described as unrealistic.
Toward the end of the four-hour meeting, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and senior IDF officers asked for instructions on the type of action that should be taken.
The cabinet decided to adopt a vague approach, under which the IDF could act against Qassam rocket attacks, kidnapping attempts and other forms of terrorist activities by militant Palestinian organizations. However, the IDF was told to depart from the current modus operandi only following specific authorization from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Peretz.
Peretz and senior IDF officers presented the various options available to Israel. Peretz did not seek authorization for a broad ground operation in the Gaza Strip.
Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi is opposed to a ground offensive at this stage - especially since the army is not being offered a green light to carry out a long-term, continuous operation.
Currently, the army will be allowed a freer hand in two types of activities: operating along the border fence, and targeting Qassam rocket crews.
In some instances the army will be allowed to carry out operations deeper in Palestinian territory. Currently, such activities are restricted to uncovering tunnels and securing areas where explosive devices have been identified.
Regarding the Qassam rocket crews, authorization will be given to target them at earlier stages of preparation. Currently, crews are targetted only when they are about to launch rockets. Authorization for targeting rocket crews at earlier stages will depend on whether an IDF operation would endanger the lives of Palestinian civilians near the militants.
Also, a process is expected to be approved for isolated assassinations of Islamic Jihad militants involved in Qassam rocket launches.
In recent months, Israel has not tried to carry out assassinations in the Gaza Strip.
Meanwhile, three Qassam rockets were fired yesterday morning from the Gaza Strip at the western Negev. One rocket started a blaze in a field of Kibbutz Or Haner. Firefighting units rushed to the area and contained the fire.
Earlier, IDF sources said that two rocket launches had been identified.