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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
"IDF troops currently stationed in Lebanon have permission to open fire on stone-throwing Hizbullah supporters," IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.- Gen. Dan Halutz said at Wednesday's cabinet meeting.
The chief of staff told cabinet ministers that according to the IDF directive, troops were permitted to fire in the air and then at the legs of those hurling rocks in their direction. In addition, in the event that the troops sensed that they were in real danger they were granted permission to shoot to kill.
For a Jerusalem Online video of events click here
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said at the meeting that the dramatic increase in arms smuggling along the Gaza-Egyptian border would force Israel to reopen last November's US-brokered Rafah understandings that led to the full IDF pullout from the area.
Olmert told the cabinet, which met this week on Wednesday rather than Sunday because of Rosh Hashana, that he would discuss the matter with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is expected to arrive here for a visit next week.
The prime minister said there had been a substantial increase in arms smuggling from Sinai, and it now included the types of weaponry - antitank and antiaircraft missiles - that could limit Israel's military maneuverability in Gaza.
Olmert said the Defense Ministry was drawing up proposals on how to deal with the situation, and that these proposals would be brought to the cabinet in the near future.
The Rafah understandings, hammered out by Rice last November, established a border crossing at Rafah that is run by the Palestinians and the Egyptians, but which is monitored by the EU. This crossing, together with an Egyptian-Israeli military protocol that was drawn up three months earlier and allowed for an enhanced Egyptian security presence in Egypt to fight the smuggling, enabled the IDF withdrawal last September from the Philadelphi corridor that separates Egypt from Gaza.
But Yuval Diskin, the head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), told the cabinet that the Egyptians were not doing the job, even though here and there they did stop some of the smuggling. He also said the Rafah border crossing was not working well, and that money and terrorists were passing through it.
Diskin said "there would have been a huge outcry" if the same quantity and quality of weaponry that is currently passing from Egypt to Gaza was instead moving from Syria to Hizbullah.
He said the Egyptians, based on their own intelligence as well as information passed on to them from Israel, knew who the smugglers were, but "were not dealing with them."
According to Diskin, four tons of high-grade explosives have been smuggled into Gaza since August. From August 2005, when Israel left the border, to August 2006, some 15 tons of high-grade explosives were smuggled in.
Diskin said although smuggling took place while Israel was in Gaza, it was nowhere near the current level. He also said that while the Palestinian Authority a year ago took some efforts to stop the smuggling, now - under Hamas - it was doing nothing to stop it.
Olmert tried to tone down the criticism of Egypt, telling his ministers, "There is a great deal of appreciation for what they are doing." Although he said the Egyptians could do more, he urged against making declarations that "would only make matters more difficult."
Olmert said he supported former prime minister Ariel Sharon's decision to leave the Philadelphi Corridor, and he still thought it was the right move.
Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter insisted that Israel should apply "constant pressure" on the Egyptian leadership to stop the smuggling. Israel should enlist the help of the United States and European Union to halt the smuggling, and should consider lodging a complaint on the matter with the UN Security Council, he said.
Also in the cabinet meeting, in remarks apparently directed at Education Minister Yuli Tamir, an agitated Olmert hinted that he would fire ministers who publicly endorse positions at odds with the government's formal policies.
In recent days Tamir has come out in favor of being open to the possibility of talks with Syria, as well as opening a dialogue with a PA government that includes Hamas if it recognizes Israel.
"It is unacceptable for ministers to express positions at variance with those of the government," Olmert told the cabinet. He said that various ideas could be raised around the cabinet table, but that once a position was taken the concept of collective ministerial responsibility applied and all needed to abide by it.
While Defense Minister Amir Peretz also said recently that Israel should not close the door on Syria, sources close to Olmert stressed that he was not the source of Olmert's agitation.
A minister who wanted to argue against the government's position could do so outside of the government, Olmert said, in a veiled hint that he would consider firing wayward ministers.
Olmert has made clear that the government's position was that it would not negotiate with Syria as long as it continued to support and give refuge to terrorist organizations, and that Israel would not negotiate with a Palestinian government that did not formally renounce terrorism, accept Israel's right to exist and accept previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.
A spokesperson for Tamir said the education minister had no comment on the cabinet exchange.
During the meeting, Olmert also clashed with Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, who is fast emerging as Olmert's chief nemesis inside Kadima.
"I don't see Hizbullah being dismantled in Lebanon," Mofaz said, in a comment that prompted a sharp response from Olmert.
"I don't remember a single minister saying that the end of the fighting would be anything different than the deployment of the Lebanese Army in the south," Olmert said.
He added that the bottom line was that south Lebanon had quieted down and that no one but UNIFIL and the Lebanese Army was bearing arms there. Turning to Mofaz, the prime minister said, "Is that nothing? Is that what [Hizbullah head Hassan] Nasrallah dreamt about?"
Olmert advised Mofaz against making too much out of the recent incidents along the border involving flag-waving Hizbullah supporters throwing rocks at IDF soldiers patrolling the border.
"They are not walking around armed," Olmert said of the Hizbullah supporters. "I would have liked the international force there to go into every corner, every house, every attic and dismantle Hizbullah. No one thought that after the war Hizbullah would turn into a branch of the Lovers of Zion. But the situation today is certainly not what it was before the war."
Dichter, meanwhile, took Olmert to task for the government's handling of the security situation in the western Negev, saying the response to Kassam rocket attacks by Palestinians there was "not in line with the threat."
Dichter said the government should reevaluate its response to the Kassams. He said Israel did not need to reoccupy Gaza, but that it did need to reestablish deterrence vis-a-vis the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Israel "should strike wherever necessary" to stop the attacks before they turn deadly, he said.
The prime minister delivered his harshest barbs to Sderot Mayor Eli Moyal, who said Tuesday that the government had forgotten and neglected his town.
Olmert said that there was not a city in the country that had received more government assistance than Sderot. The time had come, Olmert said, for local leaders to stop merely complaining about the government, and to begin showing some leadership by telling their constituents that there were no "magic solutions."
Moyal, in an Army Radio interview, responded to Olmert's criticism, saying that "I understand that he is under pressure from all sides - but he shouldn't mess with me."