Israel prepares to ensure its security after Gaza withdrawal

Special to World
Friday, February 27, 2004

JERUSALEM Israel's Defense Ministry has drafted contingency plans to ensure that the Palestinian Authority will be unable to expand its missile production program in wake of a military withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

At the same time, Israel's military plans to deploy a new brigade to prevent Palestinian infiltration from the West Bank.

Officials said the ministry and the Israeli military are working on plans to contain the Palestinian missile and rocket program even after a full withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. The plans include Israeli military reconnaissance and assault operations against suspected Palestinian missile and rocket production facilities.

The ministry seeks to maintain an Israeli military force along the Gaza border with Egypt to prevent the smuggling of weapons and components for Palestinian missiles and rockets. Such a force, officials said, could also be used in operations against Palestinian gunners of mortars, rockets and Kassam-class short-range missiles.

"The Kassam threat will remain the same as it is today," Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the American Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "And since the military will also remain in the Gaza area, we will have the same protection we have now."

Officials said the Palestinian Authority has significantly improved its expertise in missile and rocket development and production over the last year. They said Hizbullah has trained a range of Palestinian insurgents on how to produce and assemble short-range missiles in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In addition, Hizbullah has also advised Palestinian insurgents from the ruling Fatah movement and Hamas on how to extend the range and improve the warhead of the Kassam. The Kassam-2 has a range of between 10 and 12 kilometers, but has been extended to reach as much as 17 kilometers.

Officials said the Israeli military has warned the government that Hamas and Fatah would seek to exploit the absence of the Israeli military in the Gaza Strip to expand missile and rocket production. Hamas has also developed the Al Bana anti-tank rocket as well as a range of mortars. Earlier this week, Israel Security Agency director Avi Dichter warned that Palestinian insurgency groups plan to develop artillery systems.

Fatah and Hamas have also cooperated in the missile and rocket effort. Officials said Hamas has shared some of the missiles developed with Fatah, which have claimed the program for its own.

The government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has discussed with the White House a series of scenarios in the aftermath of any Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Officials said the government has urged the United States to press Egypt to assume responsibility over the border between the Gaza Strip and the Egyptian-controlled Sinai Peninsula. Egypt has refused to provide any such commitment.

On late Thursday, PA Chairman Yasser Arafat stormed out of a meeting of the Fatah Revolutionary Council after he threw a microphone at his longtime dissident police commander, Gen. Nasser Yusef, who had attributed the inadequacies of the Palestinian security forces to corruption. The meeting, which continued on Friday in Ramallah, was meant to discuss reforms in the ruling Fatah movement.

Meanwhile, the Israel Defense Forces has established a brigade for deployment in the area north of Jerusalem. The brigade will seek to stem infiltration in places where the Israeli security fence has not been completed.

An Israeli military statement said the brigade will be deployed from the area south of the West Bank city of Kalkilya until Jerusalem. The area encompasses nine Israeli communities and 32 Palestinian villages.

"The new brigade, to be called the Macabim Brigade, was established in order to reinforce the Israel homeland security in the area of the western seam zone area in which the building of the security fence is not yet complete," the military statement said.

The brigade will be part of the standing army. Responsibility for the brigade region will be assumed by the Amud Ha'esh [Pillar of Fire] division of Central Command, responsible for the entire West Bank.

The statement said the new regional brigade would include additional forces to protect the seam zone. Commanders of the brigade would focus on preventing infiltration through this zone as well as supervision of the construction of the 640-kilometer security fence.

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