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Analysis: Gov't tries to buy time before large-scale Gaza invasion
Yaakov Katz
Hope is that Wednesday's decision will buy Israel time, at least until Mideast summit.
The security cabinet's decision on Wednesday to declare the Hamas-ruled Gaza a "hostile territory" and to allow the curbing of the electricity and fuel flow to Gaza is only an attempt by Israel to delay what everyone in the IDF has realized is inevitable - a large-scale ground operation. The recommendation that Defense Minister Ehud Barak brought to the cabinet on Wednesday was not reached easily. On Tuesday night, Barak sat for several hours with IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and his top generals, discussing the impact such a decision would have - not only on the Palestinian civilians in Gaza but also on Israel and its diplomatic efforts. Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj.-Gen. Yosef Mishlav presented the humanitarian angle while OC Planning Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan presented the diplomatic ramifications. At the end of the meeting, Barak decided to proceed with the plan. Defining Gaza as a hostile entity, however, does not automatically mean that today or tomorrow Israel will start cutting off the electricity there. Defense officials explained Wednesday that the process will be gradual and will depend on developments, including the number of Kassam rocket attacks, which have in recent days dramatically dropped - most likely due to the holy month of Ramadan and the fact that terrorists are fasting or busy praying. Not everyone in the defense establishment was in favor of the cabinet decision. Some defense officials, including Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i, believe that sanctions on the civilian population in Gaza will have the opposite effect and will not reduce the number of Kassam attacks but actually increase them. During the cabinet meeting, Barak said that "every day that passes draws a large-scale operation closer." But he quickly added there was no reason to rush into one and that only when the IDF was completely prepared would the decision be made. Barak's statement reflects the growing sentiment in the IDF and particularly in the Southern Command, where Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant has been pushing for a massive operation for the past year. The idea would be to stop Hamas while it is still possible and before their continued smuggling of weapons into Gaza from the Sinai Desert tilts the strategic balance too far in their favor. The idea behind the economic sanctions is part of a larger plan to weaken Hamas's rule over Gaza and the hope that if the civilians in Gaza begin to suffer, they will pressure Hamas into stopping the rocket fire and accepting some sort of cease-fire with Israel. The new economic sanctions approved by the cabinet on Wednesday join a long list of restrictions that have already been placed on Palestinian commerce in Gaza and on what type of goods Israel is allowing to be transferred into the Palestinian territory. "The first step is to weaken Hamas's ability to govern," explained a high-ranking defense official. "If that doesn't work, then the second stage will be to weaken Hamas physically." The hope in the defense establishment, and even more so in the Prime Minister's Office, is that Wednesday's decision will buy Israel time, at least until the Middle East peace summit scheduled to be held in Washington in November. The assumption within the defense establishment is that a large-scale operation would bring about the immediate cancellation of the summit and Israel would be blamed. Cutting electricity and the fuel supply might just be the lesser of two evils.
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