When forces gathered at an IDF base near the Nebi Mussa holy site in the Judean Desert last Friday, the challenge was clear: The American and British monitors were planning their exit, and Rehavam Ze'evi's killers - including Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine chief Ahmed Saadat - would have the opportunity to walk away as free men. While Israel claims it did not coordinate the Jericho military incursion on Tuesday with the foreign monitors, the IDF had been busy collecting intelligence on them. As they passed through the checkpoint on their way out of the city, the raid - after getting the green light from OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Yair Naveh - began. The timing of the raid could not have been better for Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert - two weeks before the Israeli elections and days before Hamas is set to form a new Palestinian government - as it gave him the opportunity to demonstrate leadership, counter criticism from his political rivals on the Right, and flex his muscles as a warning to a Hamas-led PA. Additional significance to the timing was highlighted by senior officers. During Biblical times, Jericho was a walled-in city, so the holiday of Purim began there at sundown Tuesday - mere moments before Saadat and his gang surrendered to the police's elite counter-terror unit, Yamam. "Purim is a holiday about the Jews defeating their enemies," one officer said. "Maybe this is our present-day Purim miracle." Miracles aside, the invasion of Jericho and Israel's success at apprehending Saadat sent a threefold message to the Palestinians. Firstly, said Naveh, it showed that "the blood of an Israeli minister will not be forfeited and the perpetrators will be hunted down." Secondly, the Jericho operation, dubbed "Bringing the Goods Home," served as a declaration to Hamas that even the run-up to the formation of the new Palestinian government would not prevent Israel from operating inside PA-controlled cities. Finally, according to officials, it served as a warning to Hamas leaders that if - after forming a government - they engaged in terror activity, they would not be immune to targeted killings or Jericho-like invasions. THE DEFENSE establishment is divided on the question of how Israel should deal with a Hamas-run PA. The "crisis approach" maintains that Israel lacks a viable partner on the Palestinian side and is left with no choice but to unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank, complete construction of the security fence, and continue fighting terror from behind defensible borders. According to the second approach, Israel should demand that Hamas dismantle its terror wing while engaging it in dialogue. Israel, the thinking goes, should render the radical organization kosher, proceed together on the US-backed road map, and try to reach a final status agreement under which the Palestinians would be able to establish an independent state. There is also a third approach - one taken, among others, by former IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Moshe Ya'alon - according to which Israel should neither talk to Hamas nor unilaterally withdraw from the territories, but should continue fighting Palestinian terror with full force and resolve. The discrepancy of positions on this matter has the defense establishment going so far as to question the wisdom of the Bush Doctrine. Democratizing the Arab world, some high-ranking officials say, is not necessarily a positive move; Hamas's rise to power is a case in point. Israel, they have begun to conclude, should have mimicked Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who pushed off local elections which, he knew, would lead to the Muslim Brotherhood rising to power in his country. Regardless of the approach adopted in relation to a Hamas-led PA, however, the defense establishment says it needs to present a united front in face of a terror-run government. Israel, officials said recently, cannot become a weak "link" in the international opposition "chain" it has worked very hard to create. "If Israel doesn't stand strong against Hamas why would anyone else?" one officer said. ON THE strategic front, the IDF is leaning toward recommending that Israel cut off its ties with the Gaza Strip and turn the border there into an international one. The army also favors Israel halting the import of Palestinian merchandise and using the Karni terminal for the transfer of humanitarian goods alone. Under this isolation plan, Israel might allow the Palestinians to complete construction of a harbor and airport in Gaza. "If the Palestinians want to export, let them sell their wares to Egypt and other countries - just not Israel," one officer said. Anticipating a new round of violence in the territories by the summer, the IDF has begun training its forces in urban warfare to prepare them for intense fighting within PA cities. As for the West Bank, the IDF General Staff supports keeping a military presence there to keep terrorism at bay.