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(photo credit: AP)
Israel plans to expand its military offensive in the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Monday. He stressed that the offensive would not lead to a reoccupation of the Gaza Strip, but rather prevent arms smuggling along the porous Egypt-Gaza border.
"We will have to take various steps without creating a permanent military presence there," Olmert said. "The plans have not yet been drawn up, and this will be discussed in the coming days."
Over the past several weeks, the defense establishment has reported increased terrorist activity and smuggling in the Gaza Strip. Israel has been fighting in Gaza since June, when Hamas gunmen killed two soldiers and abducted Cpl. Gilad Shalit.
"The area between the Palestinian border and Egypt has deteriorated and that may entail additional activities that we haven't done until now," said Miri Eisin, Olmert's spokeswoman.
Olmert told the committee more than 300 Hamas terrorists had been killed over the past three months.
"We need to fight terrorism," he said, "but we cannot forget the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip or it will only grow, and in the future people will not remember the terrorist attacks that killed Israelis, but only the humanitarian disaster in Gaza."
Olmert told the committee he hoped to open the crossings between Gaza and Israel as often as possible, hasten the delivery of supplies to the Gaza Strip and strengthen supporters of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
Part of Olmert's plan may include beefing up Abbas's security forces with the Jordanian-based Badr Brigades. Abbas wanted to bring in extra forces ahead of a possible showdown with Hamas, PA officials said last week.
"If the addition of a military force will not hurt our security, then this will be considered favorably," Olmert told the committee.
Olmert on Monday joined Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in denying reports that Egypt intended to deploy an additional 5,000 policemen to the border. Egyptian government officials and the state-run Middle East News Agency had reported Sunday that the police were dispatched to protect Egyptians living close to Gaza, following newspaper reports that IAF aircraft might bomb the border area in a bid to destroy tunnels used to smuggle weapons.
Meanwhile, a Kassam rocket launched by terrorists in the northern Gaza Strip fell in an open area outside of Ashkelon on Monday, the military said. Israel Radio later reported it exploded outside a strategic site. A second Kassam rocket landed in a field near the Sufa crossing in southern Gaza a few hours later. No casualties or damages were reported in either attack.
A third Kassam rocket landed harmlessly in open territory in Sderot Monday afternoon.
In response to the current spate of attacks, Col. Motti Yogev, former Gaza Division senior reserve commander, told The Jerusalem Post Monday that the IDF must reoccupy all of Gaza, or at least the northern quarter.
"It is clear that what [Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yom-Tov] Samia said last week is true, and that we must first take a buffer zone on the corridor and wipe out the tunnels so that that the terrorists cannot strengthen their forces," he said, referring to comments made last week by Samia, who was recently appointed special adviser to OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz told the security cabinet he had not authorized Samia's appointment, and ordered Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz to summon Samia for clarification regarding his comments.
"If we feel some sense of responsibility for the security of the residents of Ashkelon, Sderot, the Western Negev borderline communities, and even Ashdod... we need to retake military control of the northern areas of Gaza from where the rockets are being fired," said Yogev, who heads the Movement for National Responsibility.
He said terrorists in the Gaza Strip were thought to possess missiles a range of up to 32 kilometers, smuggled in since disengagement, along with "tons of military-grade explosives and advanced shoulder-fired missiles."
Yogev, who lived in Gush Katif, and some 100 senior reserve officers and academics created the Movement for National Responsibility after then-prime minister Ariel Sharon made public his intention to pull settlers and troops out of Gaza at a conference in Herzliya in December 2004.
"We [the forum] warned the government that disengagement would only bring the threat of terror closer to citizens in the center of the country, which is exactly what happened," Yogev said. He said protecting citizens would require a call-up of between one and two reserve divisions in order to reoccupy the villages in the northern Gaza Strip, a mobilization only slightly smaller in scope than that ordered in the Lebanon campaign. He said the IDF would likely have to remain for several months.
Yogev said the IDF should be prepared to take control of Gaza City and other villages in the central coastal strip.
"What is it going to take before we finally do something?" he asked. "A missile hitting a kindergarten filled with kids?"
Last week, IDF heavy machinery and troops pulled out of the area after a six-day operation, called Operation Squeezed Fruit, the latest in a series of incursions to root out weapons-smuggling tunnels.
In the West Bank, IDF special forces arrested a fugitive from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine during an operation in the Balata refugee camp outside of Nablus, the army said Monday.
The IDF arrested 10 fugitives overnight Sunday in the West Bank and Jordan Valley, the IDF said. Special forces entered Kalkilya and raided a home, arresting two men, one of them a Tanzim fugitive. A search of the home uncovered a handgun, according to IDF sources.
In Nablus, soldiers arrested a Hamas operative before dawn Monday. Shots were fired and an explosive device was hurled at troops. There were no casualties and no damage was reported.
Five Hamas operatives were captured in operations near Hebron, Ramallah and in Jericho, the IDF said.