Security cabinet nixes Gaza op for now

Gilad to tell Cairo Israel accepts truce with Hamas; 'Movement' must be seen on Schalit release.

cabinet meeting 224.88 (photo credit: Daniel Bar-On/Jini)
cabinet meeting 224.88
(photo credit: Daniel Bar-On/Jini)
Following the security cabinet's long-awaited decision Wednesday to "exhaust the dialogue with Egypt," an Israeli defense delegation will head to Cairo on Thursday to finalize details of a truce with Hamas in the Gaza Strip that will likely go into effect by the end of the week. Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Security Bureau, will travel to Cairo in the morning with several aides for talks with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. He is expected to convey Israel's official decision to accept Egypt's offer of a cease-fire with Hamas in Gaza. A diplomatic official, however, said the cease-fire must contain the following elements: a complete cessation of rocket and terrorist attacks from Gaza, an end to Hamas's arms smuggling and military buildup, and an understanding that the truce must be accepted by all the terrorist organizations in the Strip. In addition, the truce will depend on some "movement" being seen toward the release of kidnapped Cpl. Gilad Schalit. "The Egyptian track is still a work in progress," the official said. Nevertheless, following the four-hour security cabinet meeting - during which the long-discussed major Gaza operation was nixed in favor of Defense Minister Ehud Barak's policy of continuing to pursue the truce option - senior defense officials told The Jerusalem Post that the cease-fire with Hamas would be implemented "immediately" and would not include the release of Schalit. The truce will have three stages - the first a cessation of terrorism in the Gaza Strip by Hamas as well as the other, smaller Palestinian factions. After a period of quiet of several weeks, the IDF, according to the Egyptian deal, will gradually lift the blockade of the Gaza Strip and begin allowing in supplies. At a later stage, if the lull in terrorism is maintained, Israel and Egypt will allow the reopening of the Rafah crossing to Sinai. While Schalit's release would not be directly connected to the cease-fire, the lifting of the blockade and the reopening of the Rafah crossing both depend on progress in talks over the kidnapped soldier. Suleiman has told Amos Gilad in the past that immediately after a truce was accepted he would launch "marathon talks" to free Schalit. Defense officials said that while the cabinet had decided to adopt the cease-fire, the possibility of a large military operation in Gaza still existed and would be exercised if the truce were broken by Hamas or one of the other factions in Gaza. "The cease-fire can go into effect before the end of the week," one senior defense official said. "The question is whether over time Hamas will stand by it." Following the meeting, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev said the security cabinet had "decided to support the Egyptian efforts to achieve calm in the South, and end the daily targeting of Israeli citizens by the terrorists in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. In parallel, the security cabinet instructed the military to continue preparations in the unfortunate event that the Egyptian efforts prove unsuccessful." Asked whether maintaining good relations with Egypt - which has staked a lot of time, effort and prestige in attempts to broker the cease-fire - was one of the factors guiding the security cabinet's decision, Regev said that "relations between Jerusalem and Cairo are a crucial ingredient in regional stability, and both states have a joint interest in preventing the Gaza Strip from becoming a focus for regional instability and a center for regional and international terrorism." One government source said that while maintaining good ties with Egypt was one of the factors involved, it was overshadowed by both Barak's tactical and political considerations. On a tactical level, Barak, according to the source, did not believe Hamas could be uprooted in one military incursion, and efforts to do so would entail heavy IDF casualties. On a political level, the defense minister was concerned that any failure would be laid at his doorstep - something he did not need with the country entering an election season - while any success would be taken by Olmert, the source said. The government source said Barak's position on the cease-fire proposal represented a significant change in his position from just a few days ago, when he was warning of an imminent military action. Even though a number of ministers inside the security cabinet had come out vociferously in favor of significant military measures, the source said, it would be impossible for the government to give a green light for an operation that was not backed by the defense minister and the IDF. The security cabinet's decision disillusioned dozens of demonstrators who had traveled to the Prime Minister's Office from the western Negev to protest outside during the meeting. "I'm disappointed," said Sha'ar Hanegev Regional Council head Alon Schuster. "We wanted a decision. Instead, [the cabinet] decided not to decide." But Eshkol Regional Council head Haim Yelin said the cabinet had indeed made a decision. Until now, isolated ministers had made strong-sounding statements that were never backed up by any coherent government policy, he said. "Until now, there were no decisions. I am happy the government took a decision," Yelin said. He added, however, that he was concerned that the truce would only allow Hamas to rearm and would not restore peace to the region in the end. Kadima MK Shai Hermesh, who lives in Kfar Aza - the Gaza-border kibbutz that lost one of its members, Jimmy Kedoshim, to a mortar shell last month - said it was "a bad decision." Hermesh said the decision "doesn't take into account that the people here are under threat day and night." There were only two paths forward, he said. Either there would be a truce and then a war, or there would be a war and then a truce. He made clear that he preferred the latter option. If a truce came first, Hermesh said, then in six months Ashdod, Kiryat Gat and Beersheba would be in danger of attack because of the Hamas military buildup. He added that the threat was growing every minute Israel refrained from going to war with Hamas. Area farmer Itamar Gilad didn't stop to analyze the cabinet's actions on Wednesday. By the end of the day it was clear to him that farmers like himself, with the help of the Eshkol Regional Council, could take matters into their own hands. Any time a rocket or a mortar is fired, Israel should stop sending food and supplies into Gaza, he said. If the government should fail to stick to that simple equation, starting on Sunday local farmers would block the roads to the two crossings - Sufa and Kerem Shalom - through which goods have been transported into Gaza, said Gilad.