Peretz Balks at Plan to Expand Gaza Operation

The security cabinet will discuss today the situation in the Gaza Strip and plans for expanding Israel Defense Force offensive operations there.

Defense Minister Amir Peretz has expressed reservations regarding the hawkish stance taken by the army's leadership on operations in the Gaza Strip, and is concerned that any escalation will result in a total loss of control over the situation there.

The IDF proposals that will be discussed by the cabinet include expanded operations along the Philadelphi Route in Rafah, along the Gaza-Sinai border and against the extensive network of tunnels dug by the Palestinians to smuggle in weapons and other equipment.

At this point it is known that the IDF has recommended a permanent takeover of the Philadelphi Route.

On several recent occasions, Peretz publicly expressed his reservations regarding a possible escalation in the Gaza Strip. The defense minister is of the opinion that even though the arming of Hamas should not be ignored, the IDF should focus on pinpoint operations, having a clear operational purpose. Peretz has warned against extended operations, which may deteriorate into Israel reoccupying parts of the Gaza Strip.

During an address at Tel Aviv University yesterday, Peretz said that "in the end, it is clear that the stabilization of the Palestinian Authority and the significant weakening of Hamas will be achieved only through a breakthrough in the stymied diplomatic process.

"Notwithstanding the problematic situation in the PA, I will seek out every possible means of advancing the diplomatic process."

The defense minister also argued that it is possible to further the efforts to release abducted IDF soldier Corporal Gilad Shalit, and at the same time "offer an attractive alternative to the Palestinian society, in place of the hardship that it is now experiencing as a result of Hamas' rise to power."

Defense sources told Haaretz yesterday that they are concerned by the offensive direction that the IDF is pushing for, particularly GOC Southern Command Major General Yoav Gallant.

"Not everyone in the defense establishment is party to the unequivocal intelligence assessments of the Southern Command regarding the extent of the arming and intentions of Hamas."

Speaking before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee yesterday, Major General Gallant said that unless the arming of Hamas is stopped, it will be in a position to fulfill its plans of creating a full division of commandos in the Gaza Strip, specialized in the use of anti-tank missiles - similar to the Hezbollah units that fought against the IDF in southern Lebanon this summer.

The same sources said Peretz was furious when he found out that the IDF razed a large number of Palestinian-owned buildings last week in the Erez industrial area in the northern Gaza Strip, during an operation in search of tunnels.

The operation drew severe criticism from the European Union and from the American administration.

When Peretz sought to learn who had authorized the operation, it turned out the initiative came from a commander on the ground, and that the General Staff was not informed of it, nor approved it in advance.

IDF sources said that its current moves are part of ongoing operations in recent weeks. The forces there, said the sources, are involved in operations already approved by the defense minister and the chief of staff.

The operations in the northern Gaza Strip have focused on limiting Qassam rocket attacks. In the past month there have been, on average, 10 to 20 Qassam rockets fired a week against Israel from the Gaza Strip.