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The gap between Israeli politics and security was never so strikingly articulated as Saturday night, May 15, after Israel lost 13 servicemen in action between Tuesday and Friday. While an estimated 100,000-150,000 (depending on who is asked) rallied in Tel Aviv in favor of quitting the Gaza Strip, a full IDF armored division supplemented by artillery battalions were making last preparations to go into the Gaza Strip to clean out the Palestinian terrorist strongholds daily harassing the Israeli-controlled Gaza-Israel-Egyptian border sector.
This border splits Rafah’s urban area down the middle between Palestinian and Egyptian controlled areas. The border itself is controlled by Israel under its peace agreement with Egypt and its 1993 Oslo Accords with the Palestinians.
While the left-wing organizers of the demonstration counted noses to prove they outnumbered the Likud members who rejected the prime minister’s disengagement proposals, the prime minister Ariel Sharon himself was closeted with defense minister Shaul Mofaz and chief of staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon. They were tying up the last ends of the coming military drive into Palestinian Rafah, its refugee camps and the fringes of the Philadelphi route. Rather than pulling up stakes in the Gaza Strip, Israel forces were thus preparing to take back 18 percent of the territory that was turned over to Palestinian control in 1994.
Yaalon and Mofaz, in their reports to the cabinet Sunday, May 16, pointed out that Egypt does very little to hamper illegal traffic through Palestinian tunnels. Failing IDF action, they warned, the smuggled weapons will be used against Israelis everywhere, whether or not Israel abandons the Gaza Strip.
debkafile‘s military sources outline hereunder the IDF’s Rafah takeover offensive with the help of an exclusive map we have attached to this article.
Israeli forces will push round the greater Rafah region from the Rafah Crossing to the Rafah Intersection in the southeast, from the Morag Intersection to the Sufa Crossing in the northeast – to cut Rafah off from the terrorist hotbed of Khan Younes and obstruct the flow of Palestinian reinforcements from the rest of the Gaza Strip; in the west, Israeli tanks will be deployed in the region from Rafah Yam to Morag Intersection, thereby blockading the Rafah refugee camp and isolating its inhabitants from Bnei Atzmon and the sea, where they maintain a fishing anchorage. The Philadelphi Route closes the encirclement from the south.
A Palestinian population of 75,000 to 80,000 will thus find itself under siege.
This will enable Israeli forces will carry out three tactical missions:
1. To take out the main cluster of Palestinian smuggling tunnels which snake between the Israeli Termit position and the Rafah refugee camp opposite. More than 90 tunnels have been painfully destroyed this year, one by one, but more keep on taking their place. Solutions bandied about include digging a wide crossways trench deep down to the water level, that is, some 20 meters, or even flooding it to create a barrier impassable both for underground and overland passage.
2. To widen the 9-km long Philadelphi Route to 700-800 meters, first leveling structures and evicting inhabitants, and converting the corridor into a fortified zone that can be defended from Palestinian and Egyptian Rafah alike.
3. To strike, seize and dismantle the armed Palestinian structures managing the tunnels and activating the various terrorist groups preying on the Rafah zone. Targeted are the Palestinian military intelligence outfit headed by Mussa Arafat, the popular resistance committees and units of the suicide arm of Arafat’s Fatah, the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. The Hamas and Jihad Islami are mainly concentrated in the northern part of the Gaza Strip. Here, the Palestinian population is thinly spread out between the Israel-Egyptian border and Dahaniyeh, site of the Palestinian airfield that Israel shut down twoo years ago after seizing Arafat’s Karin-A arms smuggling ship. The Palestinians here are believed to be running low on ammunition. Barring surprises, therefore, the Israeli command does not see a protected run-in with the Palestinians.
4. To once and for all smash Palestinian fighting strength in the greater Rafah region, long a constant threat to Israel’s control of the international border with Egypt, and to deactivate its tunnel-building enterprise.
debkafile‘s counter-terror sources report that Arafat in person receives a substantial rake-off on income from the contraband entering the Gaza Strip through these tunnels – whether arms, drugs, illegal entrants, or women – earning an important cash infusion for financing his campaign of terror.
If it was up to Mofaz and Yaalon, the operation would have been underway by now. However, the prime minister decided to hold off for a few days so as not to turn the three-day World Economic Forum conference beginning Saturday, May 15, on the Jordanian bank of the Dead Sea, into an international anti-Israeli chorus, or to cause the cancellation of the Berlin interview on Monday, May 17, between US national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qureia, which Sharon himself requested.
The second half of May is therefore the earliest time for the large-scale Rafah operation to take place, even though, by and large, events postponed once often tend to be put off again. Furthermore –
A. The opposition, namely Arafat, Hizballah, the al Aqsa Brigades, the Hamas and the Jihad Islami, will not be twiddling their thumbs knowing a major Israeli move is in the works. The Palestinian leader’s fighting words in Ramallah Saturday indicated that the terrorists were poised to strike first. This week must therefore be marked red for danger
B. The IDF cannot count on following through on its operation to the end. There will be constraints to prevent its missions being accomplished. Going on past performance, international and domestic left-wing opinion will raise their voices in noisy protest, injunctions will fly to the High Court of Justice in Jerusalem and may be upheld, foreign governments will demand Israel hold its hand, especially for an operation in civilian areas that is more than likely to cause collateral harm. Three years ago, a spate of Israeli high court injunctions held General Doron Almog back from launching a similar offensive that would have prevented the violence and the tunnels from developing to their present pitch.
Muddled political scene
At the WEF conference in Jordan, Powell urged the Palestinian prime minister and the more than a thousand participants to support Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan. He explained that President George W. Bush was not longer certain about the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state in 2005. Quraia shot back with a question: The Palestinians, he said, would like to know what the Sharon plain contains. According to debkafile‘s sources, Abu Ala put his finger on the weakness of the Sharon strategy. He knows as well as Powell that there is no real, coherent disengagement plan.
Speaking at the “Quite Gaza, Start Talking” rally in Tel Aviv, former Shin Beit director Ami Ayalon spoke of three red lines that Israel crosses at its peril: allowing 1948 Palestinian refugees into Israel, letting a Palestinian state pose a security threat to Israel, and the descent into civil strife at home. Those mottos of Ayalon did not exactly embody the spirit desired by the demonstration’s organizers. What he said was: Try and talk, but also fight united. He also noted that the gathering did not represent a true crosscut of the population, there being few immigrants or supporters from outside metropolitan Tel Aviv present.
Another former general, Yom Tom Samia, who was formerly southern district commander, advised pulling out of the Gaza Strip but only in controlled stages – not in one precipitate step.
But opposition leader Shimon Peres of Labor addressed “the gallery” when he insisted that Israel does have a negotiating partner, Abu Mazen and Abu Ala, who should be engaged today rather than tomorrow. The assembled demonstrators, said Peres, are capable of building up their strength and become a majority for toppling the government.
Peres was fantasizing. He knew perfectly well, even as he spoke, that neither Abu Mazen nor Abu Ala command the political following or the military clout for changing the course of terror dictated by Yasser Arafat. He knew just as well that a majority of the voting public is far from standing behind the factions who organized the demonstration or his own Labor party.
Throughout the week of terrible Israeli losses in active anti-terrorist operations in the Gaza Strip, therefore, prime minister Sharon did not go back once to his former boast that in a single day he could an alternative government with pro-evacuation parties. Instead, he got set for a military initiative.
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