Israel will continue operating in the Gaza Strip in order to stop terror organizations from further arming themselves and to keep them from attacking Israeli citizens, Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Tuesday during a tour of the Southern Command.
"We will not allow the Gaza Strip to turn into southern Lebanon and we will take action to prevent the strengthening of the terrorist organizations," said Peretz, who was accompanied by Deputy Chief of General Staff Maj.-Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky and OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant.
"Army operations will do everything to ensure that Israeli citizens in borderline communities will feel and be protected, and it will be known that they can live a normal life like every other citizen," Peretz told reporters at a Kerem Shalom base, not far from where Hamas terrorists tunneled into Israel and attacked an IDF post, killing two soldiers and capturing Cpl. Gilad Shalit in June.
Military officials said they believed Shalit to be alive and held in the southern Gaza Strip, despite concerns that Hamas may attempt to smuggle him out.
However, the defense minister said, no sweeping counter-terror offensive in the Gaza Strip will be implemented as a result of public pressure.
"We have no intention of reoccupying the Gaza Strip," but the IDF will reserve its right to act where deemed necessary to ensure to protect the citizens of Israel, Peretz said.
Peretz also called on Egypt to stand to its obligations to prevent weapons smuggling into Gaza.
IDF troops and heavy machinery withdrew from the Philadelphi Corridor early Tuesday morning after a week-long operation there.
IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz endorsed an extended stay in Gaza in a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee briefing Tuesday.
"We are close to the point where we must make a decision regarding our presence along the Philadelphi Corridor, if the present reality of arms-smuggling doesn't stop," Halutz said. "A military presence in the Philadelphi Corridor is preferable to the absence of IDF forces in the area." But Halutz stressed that "no decision has been made" about a prolonged presence along the border.
According to the chief of staff's report, IDF soldiers uncovered more than 100 tunnels during the incursion.
"There is now an underground city that we are discovering below the Gaza Strip," Halutz told the committee. He also confirmed that sophisticated anti-tank missiles were in the hands of Gaza terror groups.
In an interview with Army Radio on Sunday, retired IDF Southern Commander Maj.-Gen. Yomtov Samiya said that in order to cut off the conduits, the IDF must create a buffer zone up to 400 meters from the border.
"Operation Squeezed Fruit" began on October 12 and was the latest in a string of incursions prompted by the June 25 crossborder raid on a Kerem Shalom post. It was the deepest incursion inside the Palestinian territory since Israel withdrew all its troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip in August 2005.
The operation drew angry condemnation from Arab leaders because it coincided with the end of the Ramadan and the Id al-Fitr holidays.
Initially, infantry covered the engineering corps that searched for tunnels near Rafah at the southernmost edge of the Gaza, and the operation soon expanded to include ground incursions and airstrikes in the northern part of the strip in an attempt to strike at Kassam rocket squads.
While IDF forces left the Philadelphi Corridor entirely, tanks and ground troops moved into the evacuated Jewish settlement of Nissanit later in the day.
The army plans to use the ruins of the northern Gaza settlement as a base of operations for preventing the firing of rockets on Asheklon, Israel Radio reported.
Also, Palestinian sources said IDF troops surrounded Beit Hanun in the morning. An IDF source confirmed they were conducting "routine operations" against Kassam rockets in the area.
During the operation near Rafah the last several days, Palestinians attacked troops with anti-tank weapons, but the soldiers took no casualties.
One combat engineering soldier, who served in Lebanon and for three days near Rafah this weekend, said he was surprised by the "relatively light" level of resistance encountered by the troops.
While military officials would not comment on whether an occupying force may be necessary to stop the flow of weaponry, they did say that future operations in the Gaza Strip are ready and pending the approval of the prime minister to be implemented.
Military officials described the flow of arms as a "mounting threat to all Israelis, and not just those that live near Gaza," and they said the cooperation of the Egyptian security forces was "less than satisfactory," in spite of obligations to an agreement signed in September 2005 to take effective action on their side of the border.
While the Egyptians have been more active in fighting
smugglers, the IDF hoped that they would create more
comprehensive programs to combat terrorism, said Halutz.
A recent IDF intelligence report warned that the pace of smuggling by armed groups in Gaza, as well as the quality of the weapons, has spiked since disengagement and withdrawal from the corridor more than a year ago.
Terror organizations in the Strip are known to possess "tons" of explosives and a limited number of Katysuha rockets and advanced anti-tank, and possibly anti-aircraft, missiles similar to those used by Hizbullah, according to army intelligence.
Meanwhile Monday night, an IAF aircraft targeted two rocket launchers that were used to fire rockets at Sderot that evening from Beit Hanun in northern Gaza, the army said.
In addition, Israeli security forces operating overnight in the West Bank arrested nine Palestinian fugitives.
In and around Jenin, two Islamic Jihad and a Tanzim operative were nabbed, a Hamas fugitive was caught near Nablus and two more men from Hamas and one man from Fatah were captured near Ramallah.
IDF soldiers arrested two other Hamas fugitives in Bi'il.
Israeli soldiers attacked two missile launchers that were ready to fire Kassam missiles into Israel from the northern Gaza Strip Tuesday evening, army officials said. The Kassam fire continued nevertheless, and two more rockets fell near Sderot in open territories, causing no damage.
Sheera Claire Frenkel contributed to this report.