(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert continues to oppose mounting a major IDF operation in the Gaza Strip or cutting off Israeli-supplied utilities to the region, despite Tuesday's Kassam attack on the Zikim army base, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
The attack wounded 69 soldiers, the highest number of casualties in a Kassam attack, including one critically, four seriously and 10 moderately. Most of the soldiers suffered shrapnel wounds.
Olmert did not convene a special session of the security cabinet or any extraordinary security consultations in response to the attack, as was done last week after a Kassam rocket slammed into the courtyard of a day care center in Sderot, sending a dozen children to the hospital with trauma.
Senior government officials said that the decisions reached at last week's meeting - including preparing a plan to disrupt the fuel, electricity and water supplies to the Gaza Strip and continuing "intensive military operations against all those involved in launching rockets and in perpetrating other terrorist actions"- remained in effect and that there was no reason to meet just to reiterate them.
Olmert's position on cutting the supply of utilities is that this would not be effective in stopping the rockets, and would bring in its wake a huge international outcry and harsh condemnations.
Although there was no meeting of the security cabinet on Tuesday, Olmert did hold his regular weekly meeting with Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Tel Aviv.
Government officials said a major IDF incursion into the Strip was unlikely.
"By going into Gaza," one official said, "we would be playing into their hands. That is exactly what they want. It resolves a number of issues for Hamas."
Among those issues are uniting the Palestinians against Israel, involving Israel in a battle that would inevitably lead to "collateral damage" for which Israel would be widely condemned, and possibly scuttling fledgling Israeli-PA negotiations.
One soldier's leg was amputated due to the severity of the wounds he suffered in the attack. The soldier in critical condition was being treated at Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer for severe head wounds.
Kassams - crude, homemade rockets - hit the western Negev almost every day; while they are very inaccurate, the projectiles have killed 12 people in the past six years, wounded dozens and severely disrupted life in the region.
Defense officials said the IDF would not escalate operations in Gaza over the next few days and that concerns that a large-scale operation could result in the cancellation of November's Middle East conference in Washington were still valid.
Barak, the officials said, favored giving the army "freedom of operation" and planned to approve incursions beyond the current 2-kilometer depth limit on a case-by-case basis. On Sunday, the IDF will present the cabinet with a number of alternative responses to the Zikim attack.
"We are in a very complicated diplomatic climate," said one official. "If we go into Gaza in a large-scale operation, the November summit will definitely be canceled."
The wounded soldiers were all new recruits undergoing basic training. They were scheduled to complete their training on Wednesday and be sent home for Rosh Hashana and Shabbat.
The rocket hit an empty tent that was located four meters from a tent filled with sleeping soldiers. The IDF immediately pounded the launch site, wounding four people, including a woman and child, according to Palestinian health officials.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum praised Tuesday's attack as a "victory from God." In Gaza City and in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, youths wearing Islamic Jihad scarves and T-shirts handed out candies to motorists.
Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees claimed responsibility for the attack, and Islamic Jihad later posted a video on its Web site purportedly showing the rocket's launch.
Tuesday's Kassam attack was not the first in Zikim, which is less than 2 kilometers north of the Gaza Strip. As early as December 2005, parents of soldiers at the base voiced protest over the danger there, after it was hit by a Kassam. Five soldiers were lightly wounded by shrapnel in that attack, including Lt.-Col. Yossi Drori, the commander of the base at the time.
On Tuesday, following the attack, parents flocked to Zikim and demanded that their children be sent home. Throughout the day, concrete portable bomb shelters arrived at the base.
"There was serious negligence on the part of the IDF that the soldiers were sleeping in tents and without anything really protecting them from rockets," a defense official said.
The IDF said that it was looking into ways to improve the sleeping conditions and the soldiers' protection at the base.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said that Israel needed to make a clear distinction between the West Bank and Gaza, and to continue to work against terrorism from Gaza while at the same time taking "this opportunity to reach an understanding and find common ground between Israel and the moderates."
Livni said that while a dialogue with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas would not stop Kassam rockets in the short term, it might have an impact over the long term.
Livni made her comments at a press conference with visiting French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.
Kouchner said he understood that "Israel has to defend its population," and that "there is a contract between government and the army, first to defend the Israeli population."
The French foreign minister also said it was clear that the attacks were aimed at undermining negotiations between Israel and the PA, and that this was something that "must not be accepted."