Israeli military notes buildup in Gaza, calls for strike

Thursday, March 4, 2004

JERUSALEM Israel's military brass has pressed the government for a major operation in the Gaza Strip.

Officials said the military has cited a Palestinian missile and rocket buildup in several cities in the Gaza Strip. They said such groups as the ruling Fatah movement as well as Hamas and Islamic Jihad are bolstering their missile, rocket and mortar capability and plan to intensify attacks, including suicide strikes, inside Israel.

"In the light of the intensification of the activities of the terrorist organizations over the last few weeks, we will intensify our anti-terror operations," Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon said. "In this kind of situation, attack is the best form of defense."

So far, the military has received government approval to resume Israel Air Force operations against leading Palestinian insurgents in the Gaza Strip. On Saturday, three Islamic Jihad operatives, including a senior commander, were killed in a helicopter missile strike in Gaza City.

Officials said Ya'alon has argued that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plans to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip has emboldened Palestinian insurgents and intensified the struggle for control over the area. The chief of staff said Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat was expected to approve an offensive against Israel to divert attention from the power struggle in the Gaza Strip.

[On Wednesday, Sharon acknowledged that he had business dealings with the family of Col. Elhanan Tannenbaum, accused of being abducted by Hizbullah during his attempt to complete an illegal drug deal. Sharon was said to have ordered a quick and pressure-free interrogation of Tannenbaum and approved a deal that would grant him immunity from criminal prosecution in exchange for his cooperation.]

Israeli authorities have placed police and troops on alert for a suicide bombing in either Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. A police commander said on Wednesday that authorities prevented a major suicide attack in Tel Aviv. The commander, Yossi Setboim, refused to elaborate, but reported that authorities have ended their alert of a Palestinian suicide bomber in Tel Aviv.

Ya'alon was said to have ordered Southern Command, responsible for the Gaza Strip, to intensify operations against Palestinian insurgents in an effort to eliminate as many operatives before an Israeli withdrawal from the area. But officials said the Israeli military will not leave the strip during 2004.

Ya'alon has warned against elements of Sharon's withdrawal plan, particularly that which would hand over responsibility of border areas to either the Palestinians or neighboring Egypt. Sharon has offered a revision of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty to allow for Egyptian troops to deploy along the border with the Gaza Strip.

In testimony to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday, Ya'alon said the border area must remain in Israeli control. He said the so-called Philadelphia corridor along the divided city of Rafah has been the major route for weapons smuggling for Palestinian insurgents.

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