The seven-missile Palestinian missile barrage Mon. Sept. 3, against the long-suffering Israeli town of Sderot, which has the bad luck to be located just outside the Gaza Strip, looked like the last straw. Prime minister Ehud Olmert reluctantly called the defense cabinet into session in Jerusalem Wednesday, Sept 5 to work on ways and means of halting the menace, as desperate protesters from the battered little town gathered outside the prime minister’s office with their children and demanded action.
They were disappointed. No formal announcement came out of the meeting.
But later that day, two pieces of news lifted their spirits very slightly
Defense minister Ehud Barak made a well-publicized statement at a meeting of security chiefs: “We are heading for a major ground operation,” he said, “to stamp out Palestinian missile attacks and curb the Hamas military buildup.”
And Israeli ground troops discovered and dismantled a record 11 Qassam missile launchers in sites deep inside northern Gaza.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report that at last, after seven years, effective military action appeared to be in sight.
The missile blitz was not the only catalyst.
The eleven dismantled launchers had been spirited into Gaza by Iranian smuggling rings operating in Sinai. Earlier this week, Egyptian security forces chanced on a huge cache in the desert of northern Sinai south of El Arish, which contained not only 2.7 tons of explosives, but dozens of 240-mm Katyusha rockets of the type used by Hizballah last year to pound northern Israel. They were destined for immediate use by Hamas and Jihad Islami. This weapon would have seriously upgraded Hamas’ ability to terrorize important towns in southern Israel, such as Beersheba, Ashdod and Kiryat Gath (See attached map – http://debka-net-weekly.com/pics/GazaStip_Large.jpg.)
The Philadelphi operation may ignite other fronts
Before acting, Israel took the precaution of delivering a warning to Cairo that it was caught with no choice but to embark on a major operation for putting a stop to the traffic by recapturing the Philadelphi border route which separates the Gaza Strip from Egyptian Sinai.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s exclusive military sources draw the contours of the projected operation:
1. Israeli ground units would be allowed to thrust into northern Gaza, more deeply than the 1.5-2 km limit permitted hitherto, in order to reach the actual missile sites.
2. The IDF will recapture the 11-km long Philadelphi corridor, abandoned when Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip two years ago.
3. The IDF will broaden the corridor from its present 100 m. to just over 1 km and raze the buildings of Palestinian Rafah fringing the route.
4. For this purpose, Israel forces will have to take control of the town of Rafah, the second largest of the Gaza Strip, and its 70,000 inhabitants. (The other half of Rafah is situated on the Egyptian side of the border which bisects the town.)
5. Israel warned Egypt that in the course of its operation, its troops may stray inadvertently across the border into Egyptian Sinai. This, said the message to Cairo, does not signify any Israeli intention to infringe on Egyptian sovereignty and such incursions will be corrected without delay.
The Israeli operation to capture and hold the strategic corridor will be limited in scale to several hundred armored infantry troops and tanks which will advance under cover of helicopters. It should be over and done with in hours. But the Middle East’s most sensitive flashpoints of Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Iran, are tense enough for the episode to blow up into a broader-based conflagration.
The Gaza Arena
Hamas, which governs Gaza, and its ally, Tehran’s Palestinian pawn, the Jihad Islami, will not lie down for Israel’s military seizure of the Philadelphi route and obstruction of their only exit from Gaza. They will react strongly to the tightening of the siege noose around their necks.
For them, surrender would be unthinkable after only three months in government. Their more likely response is like to be to take advantage of the Israeli army’s advance in southern Gaza to hit Israeli targets to the north and east.
The two paramilitary organizations have accumulated thousands of short-range and hundreds of medium-range missiles. They can be expected to try and let loose on the Israeli civilian population of Sderot and southwestern Israel a ferocious cannonade on the scale Hizballah rained down on northern Israel in the summer of 2006.
Hamas will certainly avail itself of the secret tunnels burrowed under the Gaza-Israeli border for attacks on Israeli military positions and villages surrounding the Palestinian territory. Some have been packed with explosives; others designed to allow fighters to pop up without warning on the Israeli side of the border for terrorist attacks.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report that in the event of the violence spreading to the north, Israeli planners will seriously consider expanding the operation to strike at the core of Hamas and Jhad Islami military strength, using ground and air forces on a scale similar to that employed in South Lebanon last year.
The Lebanese Arena
This escalation will force Hizballah to decide whether to open the Lebanese front to ease the pressure on Hamas and Jihad Islami. Hizballah officers are sprinkled among the ranks of these two paramilitary organizations which are allied to Iran. All things being equal, our counter-terror experts estimate that Hizballah would prefer to stay out of the fray. But, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly reveals in the next article, the United States had taken the first albeit vigorous steps toward organizing a siege on Hizballah, similar to the one against Hamas in Gaza.
The Syrian Arena
Syrian president Bashar Assad is weighed down by stresses on his regime. He is immersed in an internal power struggle and faces the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s inexorable march toward setting up an international tribunal to try suspects in the Rafiq Hariri murder, including include high Syrian officials (more about which in a separate article in this issue). Those officials may persuade Assad that the fastest way out of his troubles would be to go for Israeli targets on the Golan Heights and seize the moment of Israel’s engagement in other fronts for gains on the strip of land his father lost to Israel in the 1967 war.
The Iranian Arena
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s most authoritative Iranian sources report that the country’s clerical rulers and military hierarchy are plunged deep in a critical struggle over ultimate power in the country and control of the nuclear program. The first glimpse the world had of this crisis in the land of the ayatollahs was the abrupt dismissal of the powerful Revolutionary Guards Corps chief Gen. Rahim Safavi.
The clerics of Tehran might, like Assad, opt for ratcheting up Middle East conflicts as a diversion from domestic tumult, either through direct action, such as sending Iranian troops and weapons to help Hamas and Jihad Islami in the Gaza Strip, or even by a turnaround in Lebanon. Of late, Tehran has been pushing Hizballah and other opposition factions to resolve Lebanon’s national crisis by political means. If Iran backtracks and reverts to a strategy of confrontation in Lebanon, with Hizballah in the vanguard, the country could descend quickly into civil violence.
This would short-circuit some of America’s plans for Lebanon. More about those plans in the next article.