Sharon and Mofaz Face Extreme Options in Gaza

Eleven Israeli servicemen died in action in two fatal incidents in the Gaza Strip in 36 hours: six were killed by a roadside bomb on mission to destroy Palestinian weapons workshops in Gaza’s teeming Zeitoun neighborhood, five troops, a highly trained team, were killed while searching for Palestinian arms-smuggling tunnels along the Philadelphi strip in Rafah.
The combination of two deadly attacks and painful loss of life force Israelis to look straight at a grim reality they has been ducking for almost four years. Quite simply, the country is at war. Suddenly, its television screens are filled with rumbling convoys of tank carriers and buses packed with soldiers in full combat gear heading for the front line.
On Wednesday, May 12, Israel’s Defense Forces were engaged in one of the most dangerous tactical moves for any army. A full infantry brigade – Givati – withdrew from the Gaza City’s Muslim extremist stronghold of Zeitoun after 60 hours locked in fierce house-to-house fighting and a hunt for the remains of the six comrades blown to bits by a bomb that turned their armored personnel carrier into scrap.
As Givati left, a fresh brigade moved in under fire. Thirty kilometers (18 miles) to the south, the military rushed an expanded armored brigade to the flashpoint Philadelphi corridor running along Israel’s border with Egypt. By midnight, debkafile‘s military sources counted an IDF force more than a division-strong, including tank and artillery units, deployed within a few ours inside the Gaza Strip. Last year, when a “Defensive Shield”-type operation was contemplated in the Gaza Strip – the second half of the large-scale counter-terror campaign Israel carried out against the West Bank two years ago, IDF officers estimated it would take a force of about a division and half – which would more or less cover the strength pumped in Wednesday night.
The scale of this deployment suggests one of three optional operations is afoot: broadening the 20-meter wide 8-km long Philadelphi strip that marks the Gaza-Israel-Egyptian border; a knockout blow in Rafah or Khan Younis for Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees – where Arafat loyalists are hand in glove with the Lebanese Hizballah group; or an ambitious bid for both goals at once.
By Thursday, additional fronts may catch fire in the central and northern Gaza Strip. In the north, Deir al-Balah and Beit Lehiya are Islamic Jihad and PRC strongholds, sources of Qassam missile attacks, that the army is itching to hit. Israeli military planners may also take the opportunity of attacking Gaza City and Palestinian military targets on the coast from the air or sea.
Military affairs pundits strenuously deny a second “Defensive Shield” is in the offing. However, it would take only one order from the general staff to the forces already deployed to blow up any local operation into a full-blown campaign even more complex than the 2002 push into West Bank cities. Israeli forces would face urban combat in one of the most densely populated areas of the world.
It is still unclear whether prime minister Ariel Sharon plans to authorize defense minister Shaul Mofaz to go forward on this path. Both are ardent champions of Sharon’s “disengagement” plan, but this week’s disasters have pushed them up against extreme choices: Pull up stakes in the Gaza Strip at once, evacuate Israeli troops and settlers in a few days – meaning headlong flight – or remove the gloves and go for full-scale warfare.
Neither option was in the minds of Sharon and his deputy, Ehud Olmert, when they first floated their disengagement trial balloons. They were so busy courting US endorsement that they failed to heed the relevant political realities at home and correctly evaluate Palestinian military preparations in the light of regional events.
This failure landed Sharon and his plans in the soup in his own Likud party and generated this week’s military fiascos in Gaza.
What they missed was the detailed and audacious plan drawn up by Palestinian, Iranian and Lebanese Hizballah tacticians in Damascus, Beirut and Ramallah for a campaign of violence to force Israel to turn tail and flee the Gaza Strip instead of leaving in organized fashion by means of Sharon’s 2005 withdrawal outline as endorsed by President George W. Bush.
debkafile believes a joint planning group representing these terrorist organization has established a base in the Gaza Strip and plotted the March 2 attack at the Erez border crossing by terrorists driving vehicles disguised as Israeli army jeeps. The group went on to stage the double suicide bombing at Ashdod port on March 14. Most recently, it planned the cold-blooded shooting on May 2 of Tali Hatuel and her four small daughters at the Kissufim junction, the blast that destroyed the APC in Zeitoun on May 11 and the explosion at Philadelphi a day later.
Sharon’s failure to go after these aggressors would provide Yasser Arafat with his biggest victory in the four years of his violent confrontation with Israel, and the Hezbollah with its second triumph after the IDF’s 2000 exit from southern Lebanon.

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