The Israeli government passed the word to Cairo this week that, even if Israeli forces go into the Gaza Strip and seize large sections of the territory, its object will be to stamp out the Palestinian missile capabilities in order to pave the way for an international force to take over.
Prime minister Ehud Olmert has decided that the optimal plan for the turbulent Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip is to contain it within Israeli and Egyptian borders controlled by an international force.
Cairo has not responded to this proposal. The Egyptians are reluctant to give Jerusalem a say in their security affairs.
But Hamas has sent Cairo a barefaced threat: Egypt will be punished for sealing its Sinai border with the Gaza Strip, except for two narrow passages via divided Rafah; another second mass Palestinian rampage to break through the border is planned and it will be even more violent than the first exodus of Jan. 22.
The “Palestinian masses,” says the message to Cairo, have mastered the blocking tactics employed by Egyptian border police and will be unstoppable.
Our sources report that Cairo is really worried.
Some 900 Palestinians who took part in the first surge are currently held in Egyptian prisons in Sinai and the Suez Canal towns. According to intelligence estimates, out of the hundreds of thousands who initially swarmed across the border to Sinai, roughly 80,000 are still there.
Hamas and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood join forces
Interrogations of some 400 Egyptian nationals who were captured entering or exiting Gaza at the time indicate joint pre-planning of the mass exit from Gaza by the Hamas of Gaza and its Egyptian parent, the Muslim Brotherhood. They used the tactic to present Cairo with the fait accompli of an independent Palestinian-Egyptian entity within Egyptian boundaries and in command of its own military resources.
The Islamist partners were much encouraged by the success of their plan to breach the Gazan-Egyptian gateway to Sinai and are planning more such operations.
There are other factors contributing to the explosive state of the Gaza imbroglio.
Egypt is ignoring the possibility of major Israeli military incursion of Gaza to stamp out Palestinian missile attacks; Israel is blinding itself to Hamas’ plans for more border breaches; and Hamas is turning its back on Israel’s military plans and Egypt’s border crackdown.
This week, Israeli leaders gathered themselves for an all-out campaign to promote an international force as a buffer between Hamas, Israel and Egypt. Olmert presented his talks in Berlin on Feb. 11 and 12 with Chancellor Angela Merkel as focused on the Iranian nuclear program, but in fact he tried to persuade her to use her influence to talk the European Union round to the plan.
His timing was off.
Europe, and Germany in particular, is already holding back from heavy US pressure to send more troops to fight Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. In these circumstances, the Berlin government will hardly offer thousands of German soldiers to fight Hamas, which is bigger and better-armed than the Taliban.
Europe does not have military forces to spare
Merkel was tactful enough not to reject the plan outright.
Barak tried his luck during two days of top-level meetings in Ankara on Feb. 12 and 13. The response of Turkish leaders is not known.
This is the incumbent Israeli government, second bid in two years to solve Israel’s fundamental security problems by an SOS to the international community. As a result of the first, UN peacemakers were posted in South Lebanon to cut short the inconclusive war against Hizballah.
Ehud Olmert’s habit of turning to outside agencies for security aid has the effect of undercutting Israel’s deterrent strength, because it demonstrates lack of confidence in the Israeli Defense Forces’ ability to succeed on the battlefield and support his diplomatic goals. The Olmert government and military command, which resents this attitude, found themselves at loggerheads over the Gaza crisis.
Speakers at an IDF high command conference on Feb. 11, attended by officers from the rank of colonel, including reservists, frankly voiced this resentment.
Chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi challenged the impression created by government ministers that the military needs more time to prepare for a major war in Gaza. The army is ready to go, he said firmly, just as soon as the government is ready to issue the order.
Other officers complained that the prime minister and defense minister are placing the armed forces in impossible positions; Israel’s inaction in the face of a sustained missile attacks and failure to halt it will create a backlash against Israel’s future military deterrent, they said.
(More about this event in HOT POINTS below
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources point out that these tidal events are swinging between Egypt, Gaza and Israel, without Washington showing much interest. Suddenly, the Bush administration appears to have lost its voice on critical developments, which will determine the future of the Gaza Strip, the destiny of the Palestinian Authority and the state of security in the strategically-located Egyptian Sinai Peninsula.