JERUSALEM (Oct. 22)
Israel’s patience with the growing menace of the Gaza Strip appears to be wearing thin. Government and military officials spoke openly Sunday of the need to move fast to stop Palestinian terrorists from turning the coastal territory into a “second Lebanon” threatening southern Israel.
At the heart of the concerns is the so-called Philadelphi route, Gaza’s seven-mile-long southern border, which, since Israel’s withdrawal of soldiers and settlers last year, has seen unbridled arms smuggling from neighboring Egypt.
“When we left the Philadelphi route, I said that abandoning it was to open the gates of hell. We might have to find a way to retake it,” Industry and Trade Minister Eli Yishai said Sunday before the weekly Cabinet meeting.
The call was echoed by at least two other ministers. Already, Israeli forces are carrying out pinpoint missions at the border to uncover and destroy underground tunnels which provide the main conduit for Egyptian contraband.
There is more at stake than the regular rocket barrages by Palestinian terrorists, or the fate of the Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was abducted to Gaza on June 25 in a cross-border raid.
Still recovering from the Lebanon war, Israel wants to stop Hamas and other Palestinian factions from adopting Hezbollah’s methods and turning Gaza into a second front against the Jewish state.
“We should prevent Hamas from replicating what happened with Hezbollah in Lebanon. This would have to take place in the coming days or weeks,” said Yom-Tov Samia, a retired Israeli army major general who was called up for emergency reserve duty as deputy chief of military forces around Gaza.
He called for Israel to retake Philadelphi and massively expand its buffer zone in order to enable a large-scale tunnel hunt. This would almost certainly entail razing Palestinian homes en masse along the frontier.
“There is no other way to control Philadelphi,” Samia told Army Radio. “We must simply go in there, and stay there until peace and quiet reign for 25 straight years.”
The question remains whether Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is in a position to order such sweeping moves.
Israelis remember Olmert as the most vocal champion of the Gaza withdrawal, which was masterminded by his predecessor, Ariel Sharon.
But since the Lebanon war, Olmert has made no secret of having to redesign his diplomatic vision. With right-wing parties such as Yisrael Beiteinu widely expected to join the coalition government, the prime minister may have an extra incentive to crack down in Gaza.
Political sources said Olmert would likely convene his Security Cabinet on either Tuesday or Wednesday to decide on the option of a major Philadelphi operation. But few expect Olmert to initiate such an operation before his trip next month to the United States, which will include both consultations with President Bush and an appearance at the 75th United Jewish Communities’ General Assembly in Los Angeles.
Then again, the timing may be hijacked by the Palestinians.
“The decision to embark on an operation will be made in Israel an hour after a Kassam kills two small children in Sderot,” Nahum Barnea wrote in Yediot Achronot, referring to an Israeli town just outside Gaza’s border.