IAF Bombs Gaza Tunnel; PM: We Will Uphold Truce Despite Bombing

Sources: Israel's response to Eilat suicide bombing will be limited; tunnel transported militants into Israel.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert plans to maintain the cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, and will not respond to Monday's suicide bombing in Eilat with a broad military offensive, aides said Monday night. The attack in the southern resort town claimed the lives of three Israelis.

The Israel Air Force early Tuesday attacked a tunnel in the northern Gaza Strip that the army said was designed to transport Palestinian militants into Israel to carry out an imminent attack.

"There was an aerial attack on a tunnel near the Karni crossing, which was going to be used for attacks against Israeli citizens in the immediate future," an army spokesman said.

Security officials said secondary explosions were seen after the air strike, indicating that there were explosives in the tunnel.

The attack on the tunnel, near the Karni crossing, was authorized by the political echelon, the army said. This was Israel's first aerial attack on the Gaza Strip since the cease-fire was declared in November.

Olmert met with Defense Minister Amir Peretz and senior security officials Monday in order to evaluate the ways in which Israel might respond following the attack. The bombing was carried out by an Islamic Jihad terrorist who crossed into Israel from Sinai.

At this stage, Israel will apparently avoid any broad-based operations in the Gaza Strip, in an effort not to undermine the already shaky cease-fire with the Palestinians there. However, said sources close to the prime minister, some localized operations might be authorized.

The sources noted that the IDF already have authorization to take action against terrorists who are planning to carry out attacks - popularly known as "ticking bombs" - but said that this does not contradict the general policy of "calm" in the Gaza Strip.

"Even if the [security forces] want to do something, it will not be immediately, so in any case there is time [to decide]," added one source.

Several political and military sources told Haaretz that whatever steps the IDF takes in response to this attack will be limited. The main reason for this attitude is that attacks from the Gaza Strip, and particularly the number of Qassam rockets fired against Israel, have been on the decline in recent weeks.

Several weeks ago, Olmert authorized the IDF to strike at Qassam rocket crews caught on their way to launch an attack. These orders came in response to the deaths of two teenagers in Sderot as a result of a rocket attack. However, carrying out these orders has been nearly impossible, because of the difficulty in locating Qassam rocket crews.

The continued infighting between Fatah and Hamas has also contributed to diverting the attention of Palestinian militants away from Israel, and, conversely, Israel is not currently interested in intervening in the internecine warfare in Gaza and would like to avoid actions that may unite the warring factions against it.

The Islamic Jihad organization said Monday that the bombing was meant to help bring an end to weeks of Hamas-Fatah infighting. But while the ruling Hamas movement backed the attack, Mahmoud Abbas's rival Fatah party condemned it.

Soon after the bombing, Fatah spokesman Ahmad Abdul Rahman denounced it, saying: "We are against any operation that targets civilians, Israelis or Palestinians."

But a spokesman for Hamas praised the bombing as a natural response to Israeli military policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as its ongoing boycott of the Hamas-led Palestinian government. That position is likely to complicate the group's efforts to end a crippling aid boycott imposed by the international community.

"So long as there is occupation, resistance is legitimate," said Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, adding that attacks on Israel are preferable to the recent infighting between his group and the more moderate Fatah. "The right thing is for Fatah weapons to be directed toward the occupation, not toward Hamas," he said.

The Hamas statement echoed a declaration by Khaled al-Batsh, a senior Islamic Jihad leader, who called the attack "a natural response to the continued crimes by the Zionist enemy."

Following Monday's attack, the issue of securing the border with Sinai has once more moved to center stage, for both the prime minister and the IDF. The IDF is concerned not only by the insufficient security along the border with Egypt, but also by the fact that the pullout from the Gaza Strip left the security forces with insufficient intelligence.

More than a year ago, the IDF prepared a plan for building a barrier along the border with Egypt, but the high cost of the effort, estimated at the time at NIS 3 billion, prevented any progress.

Regarding the intelligence gathering problems, a source in the IDF stressed that "it is impossible to complain about the Shin Bet [security service's] efforts."

"It is difficult to prevent terrorism by remote control," he explained. "When the IDF is not operating on the ground and is prevented from carrying out arrests, our ability to obtain quality intelligence is limited."

After the attack, hundreds of soldiers and police were deployed throughout the Eilat area, on the suspicion that an additional suicide bomber was lose in the area. By the evening hours, security sources had discounted the likelihood of an additional bomber in the Eilat area and searches were called off.

Interior Security Minister Avi Dichter visited the site of the attack on Monday and leveled blame at the heads of Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip.

"The terrorist had to have received help from a number of people, and I'm convinced that the security sources will find them and bring them to justice," Dichter said.

"They know they've finished their lives as free men," Dichter added.

Dichter also pointed blame at the Egyptian authorities, saying that their responsibility for security is no less than Israel's.

"There is no doubt that the Egyptians aren't doing enough. Sinai is Egyptian territory, and the responsibility for ensuring that events like this don't happen is also theirs, no less than ours," Dichter said, adding "It is their work and their obligation that their border remains closed."

Dichter expessed his surprise that the terrorist succeeded in carrying out the attack in Eilat, and added that it highlights the importance of strengthening and closing the border with Egypt.