Soldier walks on tank .
(photo credit: AP)
The deployment of a multinational Arab force in Gaza as a final stage of the truce that was set to begin Thursday morning is being discussed at the highest levels of government, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
According to a senior defense official involved in the cease-fire talks, Egypt raised the request for the deployment of the Arab force during meetings between Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Security Bureau, and Egyptian Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman.
Israel, the defense official said, was not completely opposed to the idea since it would ultimately bring Arab countries such as Egypt to "take responsibility" for events in Gaza. The deployment was also raised as a way for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party to regain control of the Gaza Strip.
The official said that while Israel was therefore in favor of the initiative, the defense establishment was skeptical that it would succeed in light of Hamas's public opposition as well as the operational challenges it would pose for the IDF. One such challenge would be concerns over accidentally harming soldiers of the multinational force while pursuing terrorists inside the Gaza Strip.
"Egypt would like to see Arab troops on the ground," the senior defense official said. "It is unlikely, however, that it will happen considering Hamas's opposition."
The introduction of foreign Arab forces would only come in the last phase of the multi-stage truce that Egypt brokered between Israel and Hamas.
After all these stages (see box) are implemented, the idea of an Arab force inside the Gaza Strip would be considered more seriously. At present it is still a "vague idea" that all officials involved realize "is not going to happen tomorrow," and that would depend on Israeli approval.
One government source said few people really expected that the cease-fire would last that long, or would run through all the relevant stages necessary to even begin discussions about the introduction of foreign Arab forces into the Gaza Strip.
In addition to putting an end to rocket, mortar and terrorist attacks from the Gaza Strip, the cease-fire is supposed to bring an end to the arms smuggling from Egypt that is fueling Hamas's military buildup.
Egyptian sources said they had recently received tunnel-detection devices from the US that would help them battle the smuggling, and that Egyptian personnel were receiving military instruction in California to help them to battle the smugglers. Israel continues to reject Cairo's request to be allowed to exceed limits set in the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and raise the number of its troops along the Philadelphi Corridor from 750 to 3,000. While the Egyptians say they need more men to do a better job stopping the smuggling, Israel says Cairo is not using the manpower at its disposal effectively.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, meanwhile, sounded anything but euphoric about the truce in a speech to a conference on philanthropy at Beit Yehoshua Wednesday evening.
"We have no illusions," Olmert said. "What is called 'calm' is fragile and could be short-lived. Hamas has not changed its skin. These are bloodthirsty and despicable terrorists who even today are doing all they can to harm Israeli civilians."
"I want it to be clear that Hamas is the address in Gaza, and it will be responsible for any violation of the 'quiet.' If the firing and terrorist attacks continue, Israel will obligated to act to stop the threat to its citizens."
Regarding captive Cpl. Gilad Schalit, whose picture Olmert said was in his office and whose eyes he looked into each day, the prime minister said his release "is an integral part of the understandings" regarding the cease-fire.
As the hours ticked down Wednesday to the cease-fire, Kassam rockets continued to pound the western Negev, and Hamas seemed determined to get in "last licks." Close to 30 Kassam rockets struck the area, with one scoring a direct hit on a home in Sderot. Several people were treated for shock. The IDF fired missiles at Kassam rocket launchers in northern Gaza.
Senior military sources said the IDF was prepared to launch a military operation in the Gaza Strip with 24-hour's notice if the truce fell apart. It was not clear, however, what would constitute a breakdown of the cease-fire, with one official saying Israel would have a tough time responding to occasional and sporadic rocket fire.
But Foreign Ministry spokesman Aryeh Mekel said Israel had made a decision to exhaust all efforts to reach a cease-fire, "and if that does not succeed Israel will be prepared with other things."
Senior IDF officers said that under the new orders prepared by the IDF Operations Directorate, soldiers would be deployed along the Gaza border but would not engage terrorists except in self-defense.
The IDF has yet to finalize the rules of engagement for the cease-fire but senior officers said that the military would not tolerate mortar and rocket attacks against Israel. One complicated scenario for the IDF is what to do if two Palestinians, for example, are spotted setting up a Kassam launcher - to shoot the cell before they fire or after.
"We will learn as we go along," a top officer said. "Soldiers will be allowed to use force in self defense but we will need to think before pulling the trigger."