Cabinet to Weigh Plan for Int'l Force on Philadelphi Route

Force would combat arms smuggling, would not intervene in Hamas-Fatah clashes or against Qassam fire.

The Foreign Ministry is putting together a plan to station an international force on the Philadelphi route in Rafah to stop weapons smuggling from Sinai to the Gaza Strip. Israel believes that such smuggling is strengthening Hamas in Gaza, and stopping it will be the key to improving security.

Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Friday following a security consultation that Israel must continue its offensive in the Strip. The IDF is to recommend to the security cabinet today to continue Israel Air Force strikes.

Senior government officials said they believed the cabinet would decide more or less to follow the line of the statement released at the end of Wednesday's security consultation, which focused on a harsh response to Qassam fire.

At present the General Staff objects to a large-scale groundforce operation in the Strip. Armored Corps and infantry forces are now deployed in two narrow stretches in the northern and eastern Gaza Strip.

The army also objects to suggestions by a number of ministers to hit the Strip's electric and water infrastructure.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is also opposed to a major ground operation in the Strip, which might last several weeks and could encounter serious Palestinian resistance.

Olmert is said to prefer putting pinpointed pressure on Hamas, which would bring about a cease-fire. However, cabinet members, like Minister for Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman, support harsher military steps.

The Foreign Ministry has proposed that the international force deploy in cooperation with Egyptian forces but not be stationed between Hamas and Fatah factions or against Qassam launchers.

Foreign Ministry Director General Aharon Abramovitch first raised the idea at a security cabinet meeting last week, which dealt with Israeli strategy in the Gaza Strip. He said it would not change the situation immediately but rather would impact in the long-term.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni hinted at the possibility of deploying an international force in her briefing to ambassadors Friday. In the briefing, called in response to events in Gaza and Sderot, Livni was asked by European Union Ambassador Ramiro Cibrian-Uzal whether Israel still objected to the idea of a UNIFIL-style foreign peacekeeping force in Gaza. Livni said in response that UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, was a test case, and that the force's many remaining challenges in Lebanon underscored the difficulties of such missions. She said that if the force she envisioned would have a wider mandate than UNIFIL's, with operational powers, that would be a different story.

Diplomats who attended the briefing noted that Livni seemed to be preparing the international community for a broader operation in Gaza than in the past, telling the assembled audience that Hamas was trying to worsen the situation, to draw Israel into an intra-Palestinian confrontation and to drag it back into the Gaza Strip.

Livni told the diplomats, "Israel wants peace in the Middle East and toward that end left Gaza and dismantled settlements. The international community comes to Israel with demands, but the time has come to show determination and put pressure on the extremists and terrorists. For too long the situation in the south has been taken for granted and considered as tolerable by the international community, but my message to you is - no more."

Livni held consultations with her ministry's senior staff Thursday ahead of Sunday's cabinet meeting, at which two main directions were raised. The first is to get the United States and the EU to put pressure on Saudi Arabia, which had fostered the Mecca Agreement for a Palestinian unity government. Israel expects an international demand that the Saudi pressure on the Hamas leadership, especially the head of its political wing, Khaled Meshal, will bring about a cease-fire.

The second direction is to put pressure on Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Last year the EU accepted Abbas' position that the conflict with Hamas should not be solved by military means. However, Israel wants the EU to press Abbas to use his military forces against Hamas.

On Sunday EU Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana will arrive in Israel for an update on the situation and will meet with Olmert, Livni and Peretz, as well as with Abbas in Ramallah.