PM: IDF May Target Qassam Squads, but Cease-fire Stands

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave the Israel Defense Forces permission to attack rocket-launching cells in the Gaza Strip as long as they are identified shortly before the launching, but the Prime Minister's Office said the Israeli commitment to the cease-fire in Gaza still stands.

Olmert also banned the IDF from operating near Palestinian population centers in the Strip. The decision heralds the first change in the policy of restraint in Gaza, which Defense Minister Amir Peretz and top IDF officials have sought to limit.

The move came in a security consultation that took place after two Sderot youths were wounded by a rocket Tuesday evening.

Israel "will continue to maintain the cease-fire, and will act in conjunction with the Palestinian Authority so that they take immediate steps to stop the Qassam fire," the Prime Minister's Office said in a statement. The cease-fire was reached November 26.

An official in Jerusalem said the international community is meant to take note of the change in Israel's policy of restraint.

"The decision is geared towards the international community as well as domestic public opinion," the official said. "On the one hand, against the backdrop of the intensification of the Qassam[s] an order was given to act, and on the other hand, we have not dismantled the cease-fire."

Although Olmert approved security officials' suggestion that the IDF be allowed to target the Islamic Jihad cells launching rockets at Israel, he rejected their request for permission to operate on the Palestinian side of the Gaza border fence to prevent militants from placing explosives near the fence.

Olmert blasted for inactivity

Security sources said yesterday that they thought Israel would ultimately need to carry out an extensive military operation in Gaza because of Hamas' increasing strength and the continued Qassam fire. They also criticized Olmert for failing to agree earlier to attacks on rocket-launching cells, a step he opposed two weeks ago.

"We could have made different rules of the game in Gaza, and we missed the opportunity," one of the sources said.

Participants in yesterday's meeting said there was a lot of tension between Olmert and Peretz, which manifested itself in part in an argument they had over how to phrase the press announcement on the decision.

Shin Bet security service head Yuval Diskin, repeating the position he expressed at Sunday's cabinet meeting, said a harsh Israeli response - beyond targeting the rocket-launching cells - would drag Hamas into renewing Qassam fire, a situation the Israeli defense establishment does not want to face. Diskin's position provided Olmert with a professional security perspective to balance the more hawkish one presented by military officials.