PM orders blackout on Gaza policy

Barak lets funds into Gaza, spars with FM over IDF strike; none wounded as rockets hit Negev.

olmert hugging kid 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
olmert hugging kid 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
With Defense Minister Ehud Barak and political rival Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni publicly disagreeing over military policy regarding the Gaza Strip, no operative decisions were reached at a meeting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert convened with the two on Wednesday. The focus of the meeting was to discuss whether to renew the "cease-fire" that ends a week from Friday. Livni asked earlier this week for the meeting amid an escalation of fire from the Gaza Strip that has seen some 200 Kassam rockets fired toward the western Negev over the last month. With February's elections looming very large in the background, Livni has been vociferously calling for stepped up military action to stop the firing, while Barak has been urging restraint and doing things "in their right time." According to some political observers, Livni's call for military action is an attempt to win voters for Kadima who want to see the government do much more to eliminate the Kassam attacks, while Barak is hesitant to carry out an operation now, fearful this could push some Labor voters happy with the policy of restraint into the waiting arms of Meretz. Details of the meeting were scant, as Olmert clamped a blackout on the talks, which were also attended by security establishment heads. Nevertheless, the laconic communiqué issued by the Prime Minister's Office alluded to the manner in which the IDF response had become a political football. According to the communiqué, Olmert "emphasized that despite being in an election period, the IDF and the security establishment must remain outside the political debate and may not - in any way - be involved in partisan debates and disagreements. It is the responsibility of the political leadership to make decisions and it is the responsibility of the security bodies to carry them out. Political and other considerations must not be attributed to the heads of the security establishment, the IDF and the security services." Olmert, Livni and Barak were given "intelligence and operational briefings" about the situation "in light of Hamas's repeated violations of the understandings that were achieved with Egypt regarding the [security] calm." During a review of a Golani infantry exercise on the Golan Heights just prior to the meeting, Barak said he did not plan to let political considerations be used to draw Israel into a conflict in Gaza. In recent weeks, Barak has dispatched his top aide Amos Gilad to Egypt for talks with Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman to explore extending the cease-fire past its expiration on December 19. "We will operate at the right time and the right place and with the right consideration and responsibility," Barak said. "Talk about this is unnecessary, especially during the political season, and it does not help the main purpose of succeeding in an operation." Before the meeting, and despite the continuing Kassam fire, Barak decided to keep the crossings into Gaza open and approved the transfer of NIS 100 million in cash from Palestinian banks in the West Bank to the Gaza Strip. Israel has not allowed cash into Gaza since October, causing shortages in local banks. The refusal to let the banks send money to their Gaza branches was one of the restrictions Barak imposed in response to rocket attacks from the Strip. Peter Lerner, spokesman for the coordinator of government activities in the territories, said armored trucks would cross from the West Bank to Gaza with the money by Sunday. The decision, Barak's office said, came after a "personal appeal" by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayad and a request by Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer. Meanwhile Wednesday, defense officials said that while Israel held Hamas responsible for rocket and terrorist attacks that originated in the Gaza Strip, those firing on the crossings were mostly gangs affiliated with the tunnel smuggling industry. These terrorists, officials said, made their living by smuggling goods into Gaza from Egypt. "If the crossings are opened, their livelihood is threatened," one official explained. "That is why they direct their fire at the crossings - to keep them closed so their tunnels will keep on working." On Wednesday, a Kassam rocket hit in the western Negev and a number of mortar shells were fired into the Eshkol Region.