erez crossing 298 ap.
(photo credit: AP [file])
In the face of continued violations of the Gaza cease-fire, including daily Kassam rocket attacks and the smuggling of weapons across the Philadelphi Corridor from Sinai, senior officers said Sunday that the IDF "was more ready than ever" to launch a massive ground operation against the terror infrastructure in the Gaza Strip.
Meanwhile, top defense officials slammed Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman's proposal to deploy 30,000 NATO troops in the Gaza Strip, saying this would restrict the IDF's "operational independence" there.
The officials also disputed Lieberman's assumption that NATO was capable of sending 30,000 troops to Gaza, saying that the Western alliance was already overextended in Afghanistan.
"The countries involved in NATO are already overextended," said one official. "It is highly unlikely that they would be willing to send additional troops to another peacekeeping mission."
Lieberman told The Jerusalem Post he had raised the idea with European countries that were members of NATO and they had not rejected the idea. Lieberman's new ministry plans to spearhead efforts to have Israel join NATO within five years.
"The idea was not dismissed by the European countries," he said. "They voiced skepticism, however, that Israel was politically determined to make the plan happen."
The IDF, particularly the Givati Brigade's infantrymen, have increased training in preparation for a possible incursion, an operation senior officials said was inevitable. According to the plan being drafted by Gaza Division commander Maj.-Gen. Moshe Tamir, the IDF would sweep into the Strip in a brigade-level operation, taking up positions in the north - the launch pad for the Kassams - and in Rafah in the south, to combat the weapons smuggling.
Despite the cease-fire, which started in November, terrorist organizations - including Hamas - have continued to smuggle weapons through the Philadelphi Corridor, which runs between Gaza and Egypt. Close to 100 Kassams have been fired while the truce was supposedly in effect.
Gazan terrorists have also been traveling abroad to learn how to build longer-range Katyusha rockets that would threaten not only Sderot and Ashkelon but also Ofakim, Netivot and Kiryat Gat.
"We need to be prepared to go back into Gaza," said a top defense official. "It is only a matter of time before the cease-fire completely crumbles, and we will have no choice but to respond with force."
Industry and Trade Minister Eli Yishai said during Sunday's regular cabinet meeting that Israel would pay a "heavy price" for failing to act against the Kassam launchers. Yishai said he hoped the security cabinet would discuss ways of stopping the rocket attacks, and warned that Israel could not afford to give terrorists time to "get organized" by failing to respond to the attacks.
Defense and diplomatic officials involved in setting Israeli policy concerning NATO said Sunday it was doubtful the alliance would deploy troops in Gaza before peace was reached with the Palestinians.
According to the officials, in 2004 the Palestinians asked NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer to intervene in the Gaza Strip. De Hoop Scheffer contacted Israel, which balked at the idea and reached an understanding with him, according to which NATO would only get involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict following a diplomatic resolution and after being invited by both parties.