Army aims 'to topple Hamas regime'

Cabinet yet to approve goals of military campaign; ministers to meet after Rice visit.

troops n. gaza 224.88 (photo credit: IDF [file])
troops n. gaza 224.88
(photo credit: IDF [file])
The government has yet to define or approve the overall goals of the current military campaign in the Gaza Strip, and will wait until Wednesday - after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit - to do so, senior government officials said Sunday night. Defense officials told The Jerusalem Post the IDF had short-term goals for a limited offensive, such as the one now under way, dubbed "Hot Winter," and longer-term goals for a larger operation. The longer-term goals for an IDF operation that has not yet been approved by the government include "weakening and even bringing down the Hamas government," the officials said. The other goals of a much broader operation in Gaza include putting an end to the rocket fire and dramatically reducing the smuggling of arms from Egypt into Gaza. The short-term goals are to shift Israeli cities out of Kassam range, which explains the current IDF activity near the Jabalya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip; delivering a heavy blow to Hamas; and hitting the Kassam production line. "Israel wants to stop the rocket fire," one senior official said. "If it is done through diplomatic means, that's one way. But if it isn't, then we will have to do it militarily." The official said it was no coincidence that the security cabinet was not meeting until Wednesday to discuss the government's goals and aims in Gaza, after the Rice visit, to see if her intervention would put an end to Hamas's rocket fire. The officials said that if Rice were able to bring about calm by getting Hamas to stop the attacks, it was unlikely that the government would go ahead on Wednesday and okay a widespread ground push into Gaza. Rice is scheduled to go to Egypt before coming to Israel on Tuesday. Since most of the international community does not talk directly to Hamas, Egypt is the mediator. Senior government officials said the IDF was likely to scale back its activities on Monday night, so as not to embarrass Rice with a major conflagration when she arrived on Tuesday. The sources said the level of the fighting tapered off on Sunday, largely because the combat was most intense when the IDF first penetrated into Gaza. Once the army was deployed there, the intensity diminished, as those who resisted were either killed or retreated. Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, meanwhile, said that since Wednesday, an average of 50 rockets had hit the South per day, including 13 Grad missiles in Ashkelon. He said about 100 Palestinians had been killed in the fighting and that, despite media reports that the majority were civilians, 90 were terrorists. Yuval Diskin, head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), illustrated at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday the Palestinian use of the civilian population by telling the story of an elderly man from Jabalya who was filmed driving a wagon that carried a Grad missile. When the wagon went past a grove of trees, two men came out, took the missile out of the wagon and set it up to fire. That incident was captured on film. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, meanwhile, told the cabinet that the current round of fighting was "unavoidable" and must be seen as part of efforts to create a "different equation" in the South. OC Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin expanded on this and provided the ministers with an overall assessment of what Hamas was trying to do by increasing its rocket fire, saying that the organization's decision to bombard Israeli communities was connected to its own strategic situation. Having been in power now for more than two years, Hamas was dissatisfied with its overall situation and decided that it needed to take dramatic action to reshuffle the deck, Yadlin said. "Hamas is not pleased with the current situation," Yadlin was quoted as telling the cabinet. He ticked off a number of factors working against the Islamist group: the Quartet conditions for talking to Hamas have remained in place for two years; very few countries are willing to speak to them; a diplomatic process is under way with the Palestinian Authority; and the Annapolis process runs contrary to the organization's overall strategy. "All those pressures - diplomatic, economic and military - brought Hamas in the last two months to the conclusion that its situation is unbearable, and they need to break the siege and create a new military balance against Israel," Yadlin said. He added that Israel's killing of a "high-quality" terrorist cell on Wednesday, made up of operatives who had trained in Syria, Lebanon and Iran, was also a severe blow to the Islamist organization. Yadlin said Hamas was trying to create new rules for the game. However, he added, "I want to say that with all attention on the South, when I look at the threats on Israel, I remember Iran, Syria and Hizbullah. The fact that they are not shooting now does not mean that they are outside of the battle. The opposite is true. They are all looking to see how this will end, and how this will end [will significantly affect] how they will act." Diskin, meanwhile, said Hamas was fundamentally interested in further establishing its control in Gaza, and once that was consolidated, wanted to move to take over the West Bank as well. Diskin said Hamas wanted to create a new balance of terror, whereby Israel's killings of Hamas leaders would be met by barrages on Israeli cities in the South. "They are trying to create a new balance of terror to create calm, so they can consolidate their strength in Gaza and then move to the next level: taking over in Judea and Samaria," Diskin said Hamas signaled by firing fewer rockets on Friday that it was interested in calming down the situation, and was surprised that Israel responded with a massive offensive on Saturday, he said. Palestinians in the West Bank were beginning to show signs of solidarity with Gaza, Diskin said, but he didn't envision masses taking to the streets on Monday. That didn't mean, however, that there would not be attempts to carry out a terror attack from the West Bank as a sign of solidarity, he said. Olmert, during the cabinet meeting, called on his ministers to refrain from talking publicly about the situation. Perhaps influenced by the negative fallout from Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i's use of the word "shoah" to describe what the Palestinians would face if they continued pounding Israel with rockets, Olmert said that while he could not prevent the ministers from talking, "I direct you to refrain from giving analyses, ultimatums, explanations or forecasts regarding the situation." Olmert also took the international community to task for condemning the IDF's actions. Saying that he had heard "criticism and claims that civilians are being hurt, that Israel is using too much force," Olmert said, "I do not recall that some of those making these claims have - over the years - said that the situation in the South was intolerable and that measures had to be taken to put a stop to it." Olmert said Israel would continue to protect its citizens in the South. "Nobody has the right to preach morality to the State of Israel for taking basic action to defend itself and to prevent hundreds of thousands of residents of the South from continually being exposed to incessant firing that disrupts their lives." Despite Olmert's words, one government official said that on the whole, the reactions from overseas were "relatively balanced." He said that while it was not pleasant to hear condemnations of Israel for using "disproportionate force," the reactions from the US, EU and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon all condemned Hamas and the firing of rockets as well. The official said that on the public relations front, Israel benefited from the fact that the IDF's escalation had taken place on a weekend and at a time when the US press was preoccupied with the upcoming presidential primaries, the Russian media were focused on the Russian presidential election, and the British media were concentrating on the return of Prince Harry from Afghanistan.