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HARD CHOICES ON GAZA

Senior IDF Officer: 'Pinpoint Counter-Terror Strikes May Be More Cost-Effective Than Major Ground Operation Into Gaza'

Palestinians Launch More Qassam Rockets At Sderot Bringing This Week's Total To Over One Hundred

Is Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Hoping For Labor Party To Bail Him Out With New Defense Minister?

Palestinians kept up their rocket barrage at the Israeli town of Sderot on Friday - this week alone they have terrorized the town with some one-hundred Qassams crashing down by day and night. The IDF has been ordered to step up counter-terror strikes but a senior officer rules out a major ground operation at this time. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also appears ready to adopt this policy. IsraCast is of the view that Olmert will try and ride out the coming days with the expectation that his Labor coalition partners will elect either Ehud Barak or Ami Ayalon as party leader who will then take over as defense minister.

The Palestinian bombardment of Sderot poses hard choices for Israel's leaders- the question is whether there is an Israeli leadership capable of making them.

Situation Snapshots

Background: In the summer of 2005, former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon conducted a total Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Sharon ordered the unilateral evacuation after reaching the conclusion there was no Palestinian peace partner. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah proved totally incapable of imposing his will on the various terror organizations including his own Fatah movement. Rather than halting their provocation from Gaza, the terrorists exploited the territory evacuated by Israel to launch more cross border raids and rocketing attacks. On June 25th 2006, less than year after the pullout, terrorists infiltrated Israeli territory killing two IDF soldiers and abducting Corporal Gilad Shalit.

Palestinian Meltdown: Hamas and Fatah have been waging a bloody power struggle ever since the Palestinians elected Hamas to power in in January 2006. This week, the internal violence reached the boiling point with dozens of Palestinians killed and wounded. The other warlords of local gangs also got into the act in a bloody free-for-all hurtling the Gaza Strip into utter chaos. Palestinian civilians were holed up in their homes as the gunmen roamed the streets firing at will. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas planned on traveling from the West Bank to Gaza on seek an internal Palestinian cease-fire. However, his urgent rescue mission was aborted when it was discovered a Hamas plot to assassinate Abbas during his trip.

Enter Sderot: After the internal Palestinian fighting boiled over, the terrorists turned their Qassam rockets on the Israeli town of Sderot just over the border. The plan was to deescalate their internal bloodletting by attacking Israel. Within a couple of days, they launched over 100 rockets at the children, women and men of the town. Scores of civilians were injured and suffered from shock - many homes as well as a school and synagogue were hit. The only reason there were no fatalities was due to 'Red Color' the early warning system that sounds sirens enabling the town's 23,000 residents to rush to bomb shelters within 30 seconds.

Since the Gaza withdrawal nearly two years ago, the Palestinians have launched over 1,600 rockets from Gaza with most targeting Sderot. The rocketing from Gaza actually began in 2001 and since then the Palestinian fired more than 6,200 rockets at Israel. After being terrorized day and night for seven years , many Sderot residents have had more than enough. Parents plead that their children have been traumatized by the fear of the rocketing. More and more residents have decided to evacuate their homes, or at least temporarily going for a few days respite out of what the Palestinians have turned into a war zone.

Israeli Reaction: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, a resident of Sderot, appear indecisive about how to cope with the current Palestinian onslaught. In the past, Israeli tanks and ground forces have rolled into Gaza to suppress rocket attacks on Sderot but after they withdrew the rocketing resumed. The terrorists exploit Palestinian civilians for cover launching Qassams from inside heavily populated areas. Now the Palestinians are stronger than ever after the Israeli withdrawal enabled then to smuggle in large quantities of weapons and explosives from Egyptian controlled Sinai. The Palestinians have also followed Hezbollah's example by building fortified bunkers. Although, the IDF would pay in casualties for a major ground operation, there may be no other alternative to driving the rockets out of range of Sderot and destroying the Qassam infrastructure.

The Likud opposition party is pressing for such a military measure as are numerous military experts.This is one of the options that will be on the cabinet's agenda when it convenes for its regular Sunday session. Meanwhile, Olmert and Peretz have ordered the IDF to resume the targeted killing of terrorist leaders and Qassam teams. Cabinet Minister Ben Eliezer of Labor suggests that Hamas political leaders such as Prime Minister Haniyeh also be put on the hit list. But after the Winograd Commission criticized Olmert and Peretz for rash decision- making in the Second Lebanon War, both leaders may now be hamstrung when it comes to operational decisions. Both have lost credibility with the Israeli public. The Prime Minister was even roundly booed when he addressed a big musical event of Russian immigrants in Tel Aviv.

A senior military IDF officer, possibly Chief of Staff Ashkenazi, is quoted as saying: 'Forces can be mobilized and ordered back into the Gaza Strip but what will happen after that? The preferred approach for reducing terror attacks is to pinpoint the rocket launchers and their back - systems of teams, storehouses and headquarters. The cost- effectiveness of our operations must be evaluated on the basis of serving Israel's interests'. This then is apparently the proposal that IDF Chief of Staff Ashkenazi will make to the cabinet; it is highly unlikely that any other senior officer would have made such a statement at this sensitive time.

In addition, the senior IDF officer was quoted by Israel Radio as warning that the Palestinians may be about to improve the range of the Qassam from 9 to 12 kilometers.

Arab Reaction: Egypt's ambassador to Israel, Muhammad Ibrahim has commented on Israel's reaction to the rocketing by saying that every state has the right of self-defense. He added the Hamas domination of the Gaza Strip and Iran's greater influence was 'a nightmare scenario that posed a disaster for the entire region'. The Egyptian ambassador called for an immediate halt to the violence.

Surprisingly, Jordan's King Abdullah emphasized a different aspect of the current crisis. At a meeting with Mahmoud Abbas Abdullah was quoted as saying that innocent Palestinians could be injured by Israeli aggression. The Jordanian leader called on the Palestinians to unify their ranks and act with restraint despite their differences.

And in Washington, President Bush said: 'We understand what it means to have rockets landing on top of your home.We are committed to peace'.

Israel has no quick - fix to the Palestinian rocketing of Sderot. The IDF prefers pinpoint counter- terror strikes as opposed to a ground operation like Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank in March 2002. This will likely be the government's approach.If the Palestinians planned on dousing their own internal inferno by attacking Israel, Israeli leaders may be hoping that these flames will die down as quickly as they flared up this week. A battered Prime Minister Olmert is hanging on perhaps counting on the Labor party to bail him out of his hapless defense image with the Israeli public. If General (ret.) Ehud Barak or Admiral (ret.) Ami Ayalon wins the Labor leadership primary on May 28th, Olmert's salvation could be either one or the other becoming his new defense minister.

David Essing

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