Julie Stahl | Jerusalem Bureau Chief | Tuesday, October 17, 2006
At least 20 Palestinians, most of them armed militants, were killed in Israeli operations in the Gaza Strip last week as Israeli troops searched for weapons smuggling tunnels as well as guns and the rockets that are still being fired into Israel.
Overnight, Israel carried out an aerial strike on a rocket launcher in the Gaza Strip that apparently was used to fire at least two rockets toward Israel on Monday.
But there is no way for Israel to stop Hamas and other groups from re-supplying and upgrading its arsenal with more advanced weapons, said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisen.
"We don't have any way of stopping the arms from coming in except through the sovereign governments [on either side of the border]," said Eisen by telephone.
The international community has no forces in the area, nor does it have a mandate to do anything there, said Eisen.
Egypt on one side of the border has its own "acute problem" with terrorists and extremists, said Eisen.
Last month, Yuval Diskin, head of the Shin Bet, Israel's secret service, said Egypt is not dealing with the smugglers.
Under an agreement brokered by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last year, Israel left the narrow border area -- called the Philadelphia corridor -- following its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
According to the agreement, the European Union provided observers at actual border crossing points. But the 12-kilometer (7.2-mile) border itself is policed by Egyptian and the Palestinian Authority forces. Weapons are smuggled into Gaza through tunnels under that border.
"[Israel] can't stop the smuggling," said Shuki Rynski, former deputy commander of the Israeli Army's Gaza division. "Everyone knew that the minute we left the Philadelphia corridor, the stream of weapons into the Gaza Strip would be uncontrollable."
No one really believed that the Palestinians or Egyptians would control the cross-border weapons flow, Rynski said in a telephone interview. Egypt cannot control the terrorists that are bombing hotels in populated areas of the country, so they certainly cannot control the flow of weapons through the desert, he said.
Because there is no way to stop the smuggling -- except to find the tunnels and the weapons storage facilities after the fact -- Israel has been carrying out military operations in the Gaza Strip.
Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said on Monday that the army is searching for weapons smuggling tunnels from the air and ground and has been carrying out broader operations in Gaza than it did previously.
He warned that Israel would not allow Gaza to become like Lebanon, although he added that Israel is not interested in an escalation in the Gaza Strip or an extensive ground operation there.
Israel pulled out of Lebanon unilaterally six years ago. During that time Hizballah built an arsenal of more than 10,000 rockets - more than 4,000 of which were launched against Israeli cities during the Israeli-Hizballah war this summer.
Hizballah also built underground bunkers and stockpiled anti-tank missiles that caused so many casualties among Israeli troops. Although Israeli military intelligence knew about the arms build-up, nothing was done to prevent it.
Now, Israel wants to prevent Hamas from doing the same thing.
Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman was quoted in the London-based daily a-Sharq al-Awsat on Monday warning Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal that if his organization did not release abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit by next week, Israel would launch a ground invasion into the Gaza Strip.
Shalit was abducted in June by Hamas-led terrorists who tunneled under the Israeli-Gaza border and attacked an Israeli military outpost inside Israel.
Israel launched a major ground operation into the Gaza Strip following the incident, entering the Gaza Strip with a full-scale ground invasion less than a year after Israel withdrew its troops and evacuated it communities there.
Abu Ubaida, a spokesman for Hamas' military wing, said on Monday that his group was ready to confront Israel. "Your destroyed tanks will become eternal testimony of your failure and of your running away from the Strip," Abu Ubaida was quoted as saying.
He said reports that Hamas has smuggled advanced weaponry in the Gaza Strip were an Israeli excuse to invade Gaza.
Brig.-Gen. Yossi Baidatz, head of Israel's military intelligence research department, told lawmakers earlier this week that Hamas had smuggled advanced weaponry, including anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, into the Gaza Strip - a development that would make it more difficult for Israel to launch a ground operation there.
The smuggling of these weapons into the Gaza Strip represents a new operational threat for Israel, said Eisen. The anti-tank missiles, which have a range of 3-5 kilometers (1 to 3 miles), are difficult to detect and to protect against, she said.
Such devices caused many of the military casualties during the summertime war between Israel and Hizballah and caused many of the American casualties in Iraq, said Eisen.
But Rynski said the army has learned its lesson from the Lebanon experience. It cannot sit by idly and watch as Hamas masses weapons, as Israel did with Hizballah. The army knows that it must carry out more operations in the Gaza Strip.
Rynski estimated that within two years Israel will have to launch a major ground operation, taking everything, including Gaza City.
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