The IDF is waiting for the green light to launch a multibrigade sweep in the South.
By YAAKOV KATZ
Airports Authority workers at the Karni cargo crossing into the Gaza Strip haven't worked so hard in a long time. In the past four months, they have facilitated the transfer of 1,300 tons of strawberries and 18 million flowers to Europe, as well as 14,000 tons of vegetables to Israeli markets, the highest numbers in exports from Palestinian Authority-controlled territory in over two years.
Last week, Col. Nir Press, commander of the IDF Coordination Liaison Administration outside the Gaza Strip, met with a group of Palestinian farmers at his office at the Erez crossing and was updated of their plans to work additional dunams of farmland next season due to their latest success.
For Press, a former Navy commander, the story is another indication of a possible change in Gaza. The Palestinian Bureau of Statistics recently said 19,100 unemployed Gazans found jobs this past quarter.
"Each worker feeds about eight other people," Press says in an interview from his office as gunfire sounds from a nearby IDF tower overlooking northern Gaza. "The alternative is that they sit at home or go to mosque where their hatred for Israel will only grow."
Press is one of the few officers in Southern Command who is not preparing for war. He doesn't speak about Kassams and Improvised Explosive Devices (IED), but about strawberries and flowers. He talks excitedly about the current season of tomatoes and peppers that are already making their way to Israeli markets and the intense planning for Rosh Hashana, a shmita year in which Jews do not work their land but instead rely on non-Jewish crops like those grown in the Gaza Strip.
But this positive trend will probably be only temporary. Terror alerts will likely close down Karni, like they did for more than 100 days last year, and possible IDF action in Gaza will certainly bring a shutdown to commerce there.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert took a helicopter ride to the Gaza border for a briefing and close-up look at Hamas's fast-paced and unprecedented military buildup.
He was accompanied by Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant and OC Gaza Division Brig.-Gen. Moshe Tamir.
During his tour, which included a stop at the site where Gilad Schalit was kidnapped near Kerem Shalom, Olmert was informed about the two major threats Israel currently faces in Gaza.
On the one hand, there are the non-stop violations of the so-called cease-fire, with almost daily Kassam rocket attacks from the northern part of Gaza in areas like Beit Hanun and Beit Lahiya. But last summer's operation there succeeded in reducing the number of rocket attacks.
The major thorn in Israel's side, Olmert was told, is the dozens of tunnels that connect Rafah with the Sinai Desert. They are used daily to smuggle explosives and weaponry across the border and into PA territory. Last October the Givati Brigade's Zabar Battalion discovered close to 20 tunnels during an operation along the Philadelphi Corridor.
Senior defense sources told The Jerusalem Post this week that Hamas has planted mines throughout Gaza and has built an array of underground and fortified bunkers similar to the ones used by Hizbullah to launch attacks against Israel during last summer's war in Lebanon. Hamas is also building up an army. It has set up brigades, battalions, companies and platoons and is preparing for a possible Israeli invasion.
The equation is simple: If Israel does not take action against Gaza and dismantle the Hamas infrastructure, then the terrorist threat will continue to grow until Israel faces an enemy on its southern border as deadly and powerful as Hizbullah on its northern border.
But Israel appears to be diplomatically far away from launching an operation. Olmert met earlier this week with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. On Thursday Abbas finally accepted the unity government presented to him by PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. If there is to be an operation, its timing is a crucial question that cannot be answered only according to military considerations like training for troops and assembling of the of the forces, but also diplomatic factors - like the upcoming Arab League summit in Riyadh at the end of the month and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to the region in the next few weeks.
There are also political considerations, including Olmert's low numbers in the polls and the impending Winograd Committee interim report on the Lebanon war, which reportedly could prove damaging for Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz. Some officials entertained the possibility this week that the beleaguered duo would actually be in favor of an operation in Gaza as part of an attempt to turn the spotlight away from their political trials and tribulations.
Either way, the military is preparing the public for a possible operation and its consequences. Home Front Command has been working intensively with Gaza-belt communities in recent months to prepare for a rocket onslaught and to prevent the recurrence of the failures during last summer's war, when 4,000 Katyushas rained down on the North and 1 million people were left helpless.
Assumptions within the defense establishment are that if Gaza is invaded, hundreds of Kassam rockets will be launched at Israel, including some improved ones that are believed to be capable of reaching Kiryat Gat and northern Ashkelon.
Defense chiefs are also speaking publicly about a possible operation and are getting the public, as well as the international community, ready for what might be inevitable.
Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Hamas members were traveling to Iran for military training, that Hamas was working to improve its rocket capabilities and that Hamas was continuing to smuggle weapons into Gaza at an unprecedented rate.
"It is still possible for us to stop this, but it will become more difficult in time," Diskin said.
Last week, Galant spoke to a group of foreign journalists and diplomats at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He said Israel was giving the cease-fire a chance, but was also preparing for the possibility that military action would be needed.
While Galant selected his words carefully - at the same venue where OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Yair Naveh had a slip of the tongue a year earlier about the demise of the Jordanian monarchy and created a diplomatic crisis - he still spoke openly about a possible military operation in Gaza.
"We have a military solution if one is needed," Galant said. "If the government will decide that there is a need for an operation, then we will know what to do."
The military is getting ready, defense chiefs are warning the Knesset and the public, and Olmert is touring the South.
Tamir, the Gaza Division commander, is frustrated, according to officers in Southern Command. They say instead of peering through binoculars into Gaza from the Israeli side of the border, like he did this week with Olmert, Tamir would prefer to be able to respond with force to the non-stop violations of the so-called cease-fire.
Waiting on the other side of the fence is not part of Tamir's character. In 2001, as commander of the Golani Brigade, he led his troops into the heart of Jenin - the source of most of the terrorist attacks in those days. His next stop was Tulkarm, where he arranged the historic picture of hundreds of Palestinian terrorists walking out of their hiding place with their hands in the air and surrendering their weapons to the IDF. From there, he took part in the siege on Yasser Arafat's Mukata compound in Ramallah.
Tamir is credited with playing a crucial role in the IDF's success in curbing Palestinian terrorism in the West Bank. His chance to do the same in Gaza might be just around the corner.
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