IDF: U.S. Benchmarks May Spawn More Terror

The defense establishment is strongly opposed to two articles of the benchmarks plan, presented to Israel and the Palestinian Authority by the U.S. administration. The two issues that stirred the opposition of defense officials are the demand that all road blocks and obstacles be lifted across the West Bank, particularly in the Nablus area, and the demand for the resumption of "safe passage" for Palestinians between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The concerns of defense officials were raised during deliberations with Defense Minister Amir Peretz on Thursday.

Senior Shin Bet and IDF officers said that if Israel agreed to these demands, it would likely pose security risks. They also said it would provide Palestinian militant organizations with the opportunity to exploit the breaches to execute attacks inside the Green Line.

Meanwhile, Peretz intends to ask the cabinet to approve greater freedom of action for the army to undertake offensive operations in the Gaza Strip. The army's proposals at this stage do not include a specific request for a substantial ground offensive in the Gaza Strip.

In its weekly meeting today, the cabinet will discuss alternative options, in view of the increased Qassam rocket attacks originating from the western and northern Gaza Strip this past month. (See story on page 2)

Later today Peretz and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will meet to discuss Israel's response to the Benchmarks Plan that the U.S. administration presented to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Despite the reservations of defense officials, Israel will make an effort not to openly reject the document, accepting it with caveats.

The American document, published for the first time in Haaretz earlier this month, includes a demand that road blocks around Nablus be lifted, starting on June 15. There is also a demand that "safe passage" between the Tarkumiya crossing, west of Hebron and the Erez crossing, in the northern Gaza Strip, resume in June. The U.S. would like Israel to allow Palestinian buses, under Israeli supervision, to make the crossing five days each week.

Israeli security officials are concerned that if the travel restrictions in place are lifted, militant groups will be able to move experts with technological know-how from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank. Currently, militants with the technological knowledge to manufacture Qassam rockets and advanced explosive devices are based in the Gaza Strip.

Regarding the problem posed by Nablus, a senior IDF officer told Haaretz that the city was the center of terrorism in the West Bank, and that this was the sole reason the city was under closure. The officer said that in the old part of the city there were still explosives experts operating, and that only the closures and continuous operations seeking to arrest the militants could prevent attacks against Israelis.

Overall, Israel is upset with the "patronizing tone" of the document, which Israeli officials consider to be a blatant interference in the country's security considerations.

The head of the diplomatic-security department at the Defense Ministry, Amos Gilad, will coordinate Israel's response to all the issues raised in the American document.