Fearing a further escalation in Kassam rocket fire, the defense establishment has begun putting the finishing touches on plans to launch a massive Defensive Shield-like operation into the Gaza Strip.
Doubtful that Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas will succeed in convincing terror factions to accept a cease-fire, defense officials are seriously considering reoccupying the Gaza Strip in an effort to stop Kassam rocket attacks.
"We are not left with many options," a high-ranking defense official told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. "What we know can work at stopping the Kassams is a major operation and the reoccupation of the Gaza Strip."
The plans that have been drawn up for the major operation in the Gaza Strip include the calling up of reserve divisions as well as the possibility of implementing military rule of law in the Palestinian territory.
On Tuesday night, armored personnel carriers (APC) and tanks were lining up at gathering zones outside the Gaza Strip in preparation for a brief incursion into northern Gaza.
In 2002, the IDF launched a major operation called Operation Defensive Shield in Palestinian towns throughout the West Bank in an effort to curb suicide attacks on Israeli cities.
On Tuesday, seven Kassams landed in the western Negev, bringing the total number of rockets that struck Israel since the beginning of the week up to 30. One rocket struck a factory in Sderot, killing one of the workers, Yaakov Yaakobov.
Several other rockets landed in and around Sderot. One hit a home, causing moderate damage but wounding no one. Hamas and the Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attacks.
The possibility of the IDF re-occupying Gaza is expected to be one of a number of options that will be raised at a security cabinet meeting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is scheduled to convene Wednesday afternoon.
Officials in the Prime Minister's Office said the two main issues on the agenda would be the firing of Kassam rockets from the Gaza Strip and the arms smuggling and buildup of terrorist infrastructure inside the region.
While Olmert and Vice Premier Shimon Peres have come out in recent days against a widespread military action in Gaza, other voices in the security cabinet - foremost those of ministers Avigdor Lieberman and Avi Dichter - have called for more aggressive action.
Early Tuesday, the IDF launched a three-pronged offensive in the northern Gaza Strip, killing a top Hamas commander in the Gaza City neighborhood of Zeitun in its latest operation against Palestinian rocket squads. An elderly Palestinian woman also died in a gun battle between troops and Palestinian gunmen.
At Wednesday's cabinet meeting, the ministers are also likely to hear assessments of the affect of Tuesday's assassination in Beirut of Pierre Gemayel on Lebanon and Syria.
Olmert, in the wake of the assassination, spoke Tuesday with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi and expressed his hope that the assassination would not destabilize the region. Olmert's office announced that he would meet Prodi in Rome on December 13.
Olmert told Prodi that "there is progress in contacts" with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, and that European initiatives - such as the one that Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said Spain, France and Italy would sponsor - only made things more difficult.
Regarding the contacts with Abbas, Olmert's chief of staff Yoram Turbowicz and his foreign policy adviser Shalom Turgeman are scheduled to meet Wednesday with Abbas confidants Sa'eb Erekat and Rafik Husseini.
The meeting comes three days after Defense Minister Amir Peretz infuriated Olmert and set off a political maelstrom by independently talking with Abbas about a cease-fire.
Officials in the Prime Minister's Office said Wednesday's talks between the Israeli and Palestinian officials would likely focus on trying to set up a meeting between Olmert and Abbas.
While Olmert has said he was interested in meeting Abbas at the earliest opportunity, his office said Abbas was conditioning such a meeting on the release of Palestinian prisoners, something Olmert has made clear would not be done until kidnapped Cpl. Gilad Shalit was released.
While a possible cease-fire would also likely be discussed, there is a great deal of skepticism in the security establishment about whether Abbas can impose a cease-fire.
Turbowicz and Turgeman have met Husseini and Erekat a number of times in the past, and Olmert and Abbas's offices continue to maintain regular contact.
The operation on Tuesday began as an arrest raid in the Zeitun neighborhood of Gaza City, then fanned out to the outskirts of Jebalya and Beit Lahiya, about seven kilometers away.
Backed by helicopters, tanks and snipers, ground troops and members of Yamam, the Israel Police's elite counter-terror unit, surrounded the home of Ayman Hassanin, a local leader in the military wing of Hamas.
Gunmen streamed to the area as troops called on loudspeakers for Hassanin and his brother, Ibrahim, to surrender. A fierce gun battle erupted, and Hassanin, 26, was killed. Security officials said Hassanin was a senior Hamas terrorist involved in the manufacturing and firing of Kassam rockets into Israel.
In other operations, IDF units, along with special police and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) anti-terror units, arrested a Tanzim fugitive in Jericho Tuesday evening. Shadi Juha, 30, was wanted by Israeli security services for a number of years for suspected involvement in terror attacks. He was transferred to security for questioning.
Two soldiers were lightly wounded by shrapnel Tuesday morning after an anti-tank missile was fired at ground troops operating in Beit Hanun in the northern Gaza Strip.
A spokesman for Hamas's military wing, Abu Obeidah, told a news conference that the armed resistance would continue so long as Israeli "aggression" did. He advised Israel to "empty Sderot of its residents" until the "aggression" stopped and said, without elaborating, that the militants' homemade rockets had become more accurate and longer-range.
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