TEL AVIV Ñ 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
"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
[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 Ñ or about 1,200 soldiers Ñ 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."