Monday, November 19, 2012

Israel Preparing to Significantly Expand Gaza Operation

by Lilach Shoval, Shlomo Cesana, Daniel Siryoti and Gideon Allon

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: We are exacting a heavy price from Hamas • Message from Jerusalem to the Egyptians and Turks, who are trying to mediate truce between the sides, is that any conditions from Hamas are a non-starter • Some 40,000 Israeli troops amassed on Gaza border.

Israeli troops gather near the Gaza Strip border over the weekend.
Photo credit: Lior Mizrahi

Soldiers near the Gaza border rest before a briefing.
Photo credit: Ziv Koren

Children wave at troops headed to a gathering point near the Gaza border.
Photo credit: Lior Mizrahi

IDF tanks gather near the border with Gaza ahead of a possible ground incursion.
Photo credit: AFP

Soldiers train in urban warfare ahead of a possible Gaza invasion.
Photo credit: Ziv Koren

Smoke billows in Gaza following an Israel Air Force strike.
Photo credit: AP

The Israel Defense Forces are prepared for a major expansion of their operations in the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday, as Operation Pillar of Defense entered its fifth day.

One possible sign of this were reports from Arab and international media outlets that the IDF had taken over the radio frequencies in Gaza and was broadcasting warnings to residents living near the Israel border to move away, possibly in preparation for a ground offensive. The IDF has moved significant hardware and troop numbers to the Gaza border area.

Speaking at the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said, "By now the IDF has attacked over 1,000 terrorist targets in the Gaza Strip and it is continuing its operations as we speak. It is achieving significant hits on weapons aimed at Israeli citizens, as well as on those who use these weapons and those who dispatch them. We are exacting a heavy price from Hamas and the [other] terrorist organizations, and the IDF is prepared for a significant expansion of its operations."

The prime minister also commented on his telephone conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama over the weekend in which Obama affirmed Israel's right to defend itself.

"Over the weekend, I spoke again with U.S. President Barack Obama. I thanked him for his support of Israel's right to defend itself and for his contribution, and that of the American people, in developing Iron Dome," Netanyahu said. "I repeat and praise the restraint, determination and resilience of Israel's citizens on the homefront, and I repeat my request to all of you to follow the instructions from IDF Homefront Command because it saves lives."

On the possible launch of a ground operation in Gaza, in addition to the IDF's current surgical airstrikes, Netanyahu said, "The operation in the Gaza Strip is continuing and we are prepared to expand it. I appreciate the rapid and impressive mobilization of the reservists, who have come from all over the country and turned out for the mission at hand. Reserve and conscripted soldiers are ready for any order they might receive."

Meanwhile, as rockets continued to hit Israel on Sunday, with two rockets aimed at Tel Aviv but intercepted by Iron Dome, it appeared that both sides were not drawing nearer to any cease-fire, despite reports a day earlier in the Arab media suggesting a truce was in the works. A senior Palestinian official told the French news agency AFP that Egypt, Turkey and Qatar were working to reach a truce between Hamas and Israel by Sunday or Monday. "It is possible to reach understandings for calm," the unnamed Palestinian official said.

The reports said deliberations were being held aimed at reaching a cease-fire agreement between Hamas and Israel, including the possibility that a senior Israeli official would visit Cairo. The reports were denied in Israel, but the option of Israel holding its fire was not rejected if Hamas stops its rocket attacks. 

Simultaneously, reserve troops continued to amass along the Gaza border over the weekend.
"As of now, we have struck more than 1,000 targets, so Hamas should do the math over whether it is worth it or not to agree to a cease-fire," said Israeli Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon.

"If there is quiet in the south and no rockets and missiles are fired at Israel's citizens, nor terrorist attacks engineered from the Gaza Strip, we will not attack," he wrote on Twitter.

Fifty Palestinians, about half of them civilians, including 14 children, have been killed since the Israeli offensive began, Palestinian officials said. More than 500 rockets fired from Gaza have hit Israel, killing three civilians and wounding dozens of , including a rescue worker who was seriously wounded in Shaar Hanegev in the south on Sunday.

One rocket salvo fired on Sunday also wounded two people after hitting a house in the coastal city of Ashkelon, police said.

A Palestinian official told Reuters the truce discussions would continue in Cairo on Sunday, saying, "There is hope,” but that it was too early to say whether the efforts would succeed.

At a Gaza news conference, Hamas military spokesman Abu Ubaida voiced defiance, saying: "This round of confrontation will not be the last against the Zionist enemy, and it is only the beginning."

Hamas said Israeli missiles destroyed the office of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh on Sunday, two days after he met there with Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil, and struck police headquarters.

According to Arab news outlets, Hamas' political bureau chief Khaled Mashal, his deputy Moussa Abu Marzouk, and the head of the Islamic Jihad, Ramadan Salah, met in Cairo on Saturday with the head of Egyptian intelligence, Gen. Mohamed Raafat Shehata. Egyptian sources said that senior Hamas and Islamic Jihad officials would agree to a cease-fire on condition that Israel lifted the siege from Gaza and promise to abstain from targeted killings, and that Egypt completely opened the Rafah border crossing — a move that Cairo has so far opposed. Hamas also demanded that the international community ensure that Israel uphold the conditions and stop airstrikes on Gaza.

A senior Egyptian source confirmed the reports: "While Hamas is interested in a cease-fire based on certain conditions to be presented to Israel, the message from Jerusalem to the Egyptians and Turks, who are trying to mediate between the sides, is that any conditions from Hamas are a non-starter."
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi said Saturday, "There are indications that a cease-fire is possible in the near future."

Israeli officials in the Prime Minister's Office and from the Defense and Foreign Ministries said that no negotiations for a cease-fire were currently underway and that no Israeli representative was in Cairo. However, Israeli officials said that if Egypt forced a cease-fire on Hamas, it could be assumed that Israel would accept it. 

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said over the weekend, "If you launch a ground operation, you can't stop in the middle. In Operation Cast Lead [in 2008-9] this is what happened, and we paid a heavy price in international public opinion and the objective wasn't reached."

Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau, also from Lieberman's Yisrael Beytenu party, said at the cabinet meeting, "We are not yet at the point of a cease-fire. A cease-fire now would be a serious mistake. The goals of the operation must be achieved at any price, even with a ground incursion, if it can't be avoided. We can't repeat the mistakes of the past, when we stopped operations in the middle, before ensuring that we had destroyed the terrorist infrastructure and before ensuring that we had made sure they could no longer smuggle weapons. This matter requires perseverance and patience."

Meanwhile, the IDF continued preparing for a possible ground invasion over the weekend. After the government authorized the enlistment of 75,000 reserve troops, some 40,000 have amassed so far near the border with Gaza. According to the London Times, on Friday the IDF was directed to be ready for a ground incursion "within an hour's notice." 

Appearing before the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz said, "In the past year and a half, all of the combat troops have undergone training on mission-related models to prepare them for a ground operation. The sense that we are getting from the soldiers is, 'Let us in.'"

It appears that senior IDF officers, among them Gantz, believe that if a diplomatic solution cannot be reached, a ground operation would be required, which according to the plan would be conducted on a larger scale than Operation Cast Lead.

GOC Southern Command Maj. Gen. Tal Russo said: "We have a plan in place that is incremental in its use of force. In Gaza there is a huge arsenal of weapons and missiles, and we will have to take care of it with whatever means necessary. The Fajr missile threat has mainly been destroyed, but there could be several more here and there."

Alongside the army's preparations intended to increase pressure on Hamas, it seems the IDF's higher command predefined a relatively modest goal for the mission: improvement of the security situation based on strengthening the IDF's deterrence capabilities. There is no talk of toppling Hamas or trying to implement any other type of geopolitical rearrangement. At this stage, the IDF appears to be satisfied with the operation's achievements, which went according to plan, and apparently believes that from this point on the success of the past few days can only be blurred.

On Sunday, the Kerem Shalom border crossing between Israel and Gaza, which was closed over the weekend due to the security situation, was reopened and Gaza is expected to receive shipments of food and medicine. This arrangement was coordinated by Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot, head of the Civil Administration, and senior Palestinian Authority officials.

Lilach Shoval, Shlomo Cesana, Daniel Siryoti and Gideon Allon


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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