Is this the time for a Gaza operation?

Post-Annapolis, defense establishment gearing up for possible response to Kassams, Hamas buildup.

tank n. gaza 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
tank n. gaza 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
While the Annapolis summit concluded on Tuesday, paving the way for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, the defense establishment began gearing up for the possibility that Defense Minister Ehud Barak, upon his return from the United States, will order a large-scale military operation into the Gaza Strip. Barak has been saying for months that "with every day that passes Israel draws closer" to a large operation in Gaza in face of the incessant Kassam rocket attacks and the unprecedented Hamas military buildup there. However, Barak has refrained from recommending such an operation to the cabinet until now, out of fear that it would have brought about the cancellation of the talks. "Israel held back from launching such an operation ahead of the summit since it didn't want to be blamed for ruining the summit," a defense official explained Tuesday. "Once that the summit is over, there is an opportunity to go into Gaza and strike back at Hamas." As reported in The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday, some defense officials have begun floating the idea that a large-scale operation in Gaza could also benefit Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and, by having the IDF weaken Hamas, his Fatah Party might be able to regain control there. Despite the sensitivity of the timing, the IDF has continued this past week with its daily operations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, killing at least eight terrorists and wounding another four since Monday. Defense officials noted that Hamas has used the past two years since Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip to build up a powerful force that looks and operates like a real military. "Hamas is no longer just another terror group," a defense official said. "Today it is built like a military with brigades, battalions and even special forces." A large operation in Gaza would require the IDF to call up large numbers of reservists and to mobilize almost two divisions from the Infantry, Armored and Engineering Corps. One option the IDF is considering is using the force to create a buffer zone in northern Gaza, possibly on the remains of three former Israeli settlements evacuated under the disengagement plan in the summer of 2005. The idea behind the buffer zone, sources said, would be to push back the Kassam rocket cells and take them out of the range of Ashkelon and Sderot. Other units would most probably be deployed in Rafah, Gaza's southernmost point and home to dozens of tunnels that are used by Hamas to smuggle weapons and explosives into Gaza from Egypt.