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Defense Minister Ehud Barak Has Ordered Carefully Calibrated Campaign Against Terrorism From Gaza

Barak Appears Determined To Prevent Hamas Turning Gaza Into Iranian Forward Base As Hezbollah Did In South Lebanon

Israel Permits Tons Of Food Supplies & Drugs To Be Shipped Into Gaza

Terrorists in Gaza Strip

The recent surge in IDF strikes against terrorist activity in the Gaza Strip indicates that Israel has adopted a zero tolerance policy similar to that on the West Bank. The new Defense Minister Ehud Barak is overseeing this approach while IDF Chief of Staff Gaby Ashkenazi is in command on the ground. After hearing accounts of recent briefing by the Chief of Staff and senior IDF officers, IsraCast has the impression that the Gaza Strip has become the focal point in blocking the Iranian thrust to threaten Israel from both its northern and southern borders.

Has Israel now adopted a 'zero tolerance' to terrorism from the Gaza Strip after the recent Hamas takeover ? That appears to be the case after the latest IDF operation that sent tanks and troops into the central area of Gaza to root out terrorists, their weapons and underground tunnels being dug under the nearby security fence. Helicopter gunships were also tracking down terrorist leaders from the air, keeping them on the run.Thursday's operation was a case in point - 11 Hamas gunmen were killed, 109 Palestinians were checked out and 9 were brought back to Israel for further interrogation. The Palestinians say 20 were killed and many more wounded. Two IDF soldiers were wounded in the clashes. The swift sweep penetrated only a little more than a mile into Palestinian territory along Israel's security fence and it bore the trademark of new Defense Minister Ehud Barak. IDF commanders say these raids will continue with the aim of keeping the terrorists off balance.

The Hamas coup in Gaza last month that drove out the rival Fatah lead by President Mahmoud Abbas has sounded warning bells in Israel. If unhampered, the Hamas Islamist fanatics bent on Israel's destruction, would have a free hand in strengthening their ties with Iran. Israel has served notice that it is not going to let this happen - Hamastan will not be permitted to build up an Iranian supported military base like Hezbollah did in south Lebanon.

Defense-Minister Ehud Barak (Photo: Amit Shabi)

That powder-keg flared up into war last July after the Hezbollah raid inside Israel that killed 8 soldiers and abducted two others. Ehud Barak is overseeing the new campaign against Gaza and is apparently determined to deliver results in his current drive to return to the PM's office. He appears to be the right man in the right place today because Barak was the prime minister who ordered the IDF withdrawal from south Lebanon in May 2000. Many Israelis blame Barak for the pullback that enabled Hezbollah and Iranian advisors to move right down to the Israeli frontier. If Barak has learned his lesson, he will not repeat the Hezbollah debacle in Gaza. On the ground, the new Chief of Staff Gaby Ashkenazi is calling the shots - at present Barak and Ashkenazi appear to be a crack team. Barak, himself a former highly vaunted Chief of Staff brings a wealth of experience and prestige to the IDF high command. At a closed-door briefing of the Knesset Foreign Affairs & Defense Committee, Ashkenazi and his staff made a detailed presentation of how the IDF has adopted new tactics to cope with failings in the Second Lebanon War. Later, Knesset Members lauded what they had seen saying that Ashkenazi has taken the whole army back to a ' basic training ' course. First and foremost, were senior field commanders who had not gained enough training. That is another reason for the big IDF maneuvers on the Golan Heights under the watchful eyes of the Syrian army. Aside from the obvious need for large scale exercises, it also sent a message to Damascus that Israel is taking precautions in light of the recent threats of war from Syrian President Bashar Assad. The Syrian military build-up financed in part by Iranian money has created the danger of miscalculation by one side or the other. Israeli intelligence sources say they see no sign that Syria is about to attack Israel.

However, although the Syrian tank formations are deployed to the rear in front of Damascus, they could rush to the Golan Heights within a few hours. So, the time needed by the Syrian army switching to a war footing is very short and requires the IDF to deploy sufficient forces on the Golan to cope with the Syrian capability.

PM Ehud Olmert

In any case, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has again clarified that he has no intention of taking up Assad's peace offer arguing that the Syrian leader is presenting prior conditions. Olmert has said that U.S. President George Bush did not rule out an Israeli- Syrian peace talks: Bush had simply said: ' I won't act as a middleman!' Now that kind of statement to an Israeli PM at this juncture is tantamount to a veiled warning of 'Don't do it!' In any case, the Prime Minister has opted for what he sees as a new opportunity that has emerged now with Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah regime on the Gaza Bank that has jettisoned Hamas. At the same time, IDF strikes continued nightly against terrorists on the West Bank who operate on Abbas turf. As reported a week ago on IsraCast, his security forces have halted operations against Hamas terrorists on the West Bank. Therefore, the IDF will continue its raids to break up terrorist activity before it moves into operational phase. But if Israel is conducting a zero tolerance to terrorism from Gaza , it is also permitting UNRWA and other aid organizations to push in tons of food and drugs. Israeli officials have said: 'Gaza will not be made to starve'. A senior IDF intelligence officer contends there are now two separate Palestinian entities - one in Gaza and the other on the West Bank. This situation is likely to last for some time. The Hamas game plan is to show the people of Gaza that its regime is not corrupt like Fatah and that it can care for their needs.

Despite the brutal takeover, Hamas wants to restore its ties with Abbas on the West Bank. Indeed, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are also pressing in this direction. The Chief of Staff says over a period of time Hamas leader Haled Mashal in Damascus may get together with Abbas. On this score, Hamas - Damascus are not thought to have instigated the takeover; Hamas simply rolled through the Fatah regime which capitulated. Gen. Ashkenazi said he was not surprised by the Hamas takeover- it was clear the recent Mecca summit of Arab leaders recently had not resolved the power struggle between Fatah and Hamas. On the ground, Hamas had agreed to the Islamic Jihad launching Qassam rockets at Israel as well as plotting attacks on Israeli territory. Hamas itself was conducting limited strikes in the area of Israel's security fence with Gaza. The intelligence officer said Hamas was trying to consolidate its positions in Gaza as a viable regime. The danger was that it would be easier for the radical Islamists to bolster their military capability by smuggling weapons and explosives from Egyptian controlled Sinai. While their goal is to enforce Islamic religious law on the Gaza Strip, this would be a gradual process and would take more than a year or two. Meanwhile, on the West Bank the Palestinian Authority was trying to show the population they enjoyed relative prosperity and stability whereas Hamas was bringing hardship and isolation to Gaza. But the fact is that in the past election, Hamas swept nearly all the West Bank towns. The Israeli assessment is that Hamas might be able to rebuild its political base on the West Bank. However, the IDF is there to prevent a Hamas terrorist build-up in case Fatah gets cold feet.

 As for the Gaza Strip, an independent estimate by the Human Rights Watch indicates that some 2,700 rockets have been fired at Israel from Gaza since Israel's total withdrawal two years ago. The current Israeli policy shows this will not be acceptable for the next two years. Footnote: The Hamas release of BBC reporter Allan Johnston was welcomed also as a sign that Hamas might soon free abducted IDF soldier Corporal Gilad Shalit. However, Israeli officials say Hamas was eager to build its international image of legitimacy - this is not exactly the same with regard to Israel. Olmert has agreed to release Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit but not those with 'blood on their hands'.

David Essing

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