U.S. bans Israeli invasion of Gaza

Special to World
Wednesday, September 3, 2003

TEL AVIV The United States has warned Israel not to launch a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip.

Israeli military sources said the Bush administration, through U.S. envoy John Wolf, relayed Washington's objection to Israeli plans to invade Hamas strongholds in the Gaza Strip. The sources said the U.S. messages warned that such a move would torpedo the U.S.-sponsored roadmap that calls for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian war and the establishment of a Palestinian state with interim borders by the end of 2003.

The United States expressed concern that the Israeli operation would encounter heavy resistance from Palestinian Authority forces and the ruling Fatah militia, the sources said. They said the Bush administration was concerned that this would lead to heavy damage to PA security installations and a resumption of Israeli military deployment in PA areas.

Instead, the Bush administration plans to launch a new drive to resume an unofficial Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The issue was expected to be discussed on Thursday in Washington during talks by a visiting envoy of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Dov Weissglass, with U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

The Israeli plan was drafted by the military's General Staff and presented by Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon to the Sharon government last week. The plan asserted that an Israeli military invasion was required to foil Hamas efforts to accelerate the development and production of extended-range Kassam-class missiles that could reach the southwestern Israeli city of Ashkelon.

"We have this option ready," Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said on Tuesday. "It depends on the situation."

Last week, Ashkelon was struck by an extended-range Kassam missile fired from the northern Gaza Strip. At that point, the sources said, Ya'alon and Mofaz urged Sharon to approve a plan for an invasion of Hamas strongholds throughout the Gaza Strip. The plan designated more than a dozen suspected Palestinian missile and production facilities in the area.

But the sources said Sharon encountered strong U.S. pressure to refrain from any ground invasion. Instead, Israel's military was ordered to target Hamas military commanders deemed to have been involved in missile and mortar production.

"The decision of the political establishment has been to keep giving a chance to this process [with the PA]," Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi said.

[On Wednesday, Palestinian sources said a Hamas senior operative targeted by Israel has been declared clinically dead. Khaled Massoud was the target of an Israeli helicopter missile strike in Gaza City on Monday in which another Hamas operative was also killed.]

Currently, the sources said, Israel's military has kept a force of brigade strength or about 1,200 soldiers on standby for any government invasion order of the Gaza Strip. The sources said the alert cannot be extended beyond the next few days.

"There is tension and frustration within the military brass, particularly in Southern Command," a military source said. "The intelligence has identified targets but the army can't get to them."

Sharon has not discussed the military's appeal for a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip. But Mofaz said Israel must be prepared to exile PA Chairman Yasser Arafat by the end of the year.

"As for the future I believe that we will need to address this matter in a relatively short space of time, very possibly even this year," Mofaz said in a radio interview. "The timing [of expulsion] must be chosen so that it won't hurt the current [PA] leadership and allow them to continue the policies that they proposed, they committed to and we haven't seen results from."

In Washington, the State Department rejected Mofaz's statement and said Israel has not relayed to the United States any plan to expel Arafat. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States opposes the deportation of the PA chairman.

"We had been informed by the Israeli government that they had no plans to do that," Boucher said. "Our view is that [the Israeli decision not to expel Arafat] was the right decision and remains so."

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