DEBKAfile Exclusive Report
President George W. Bush gave Israel the nod for its long-delayed military operation against Hamas in the Gaza before he ended his 50-hour visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah on Friday, Jan. 11 – except that his provisos stop the Israeli military short of its objectives, namely stamping out the Palestinian missile campaign, halting smuggling and eradicating Hamas military stockpiles, as reported here by DEBKAfile’s military sources:
1. Israeli forces must limit their invasion to two or three strips abutting the Gaza-Israeli border of the 365 sq. km square Hamas-ruled territory on Israel’s southwestern border. Those sources identify those strips as the northern pocket of Beit Hanoun, Beit Lahiya and the fringes of the Jebalya camp; the southern areas east of Khan Younes up to the Sufa and Kerem Shalom crossings; and sections of the Philadelphi border strip with Egypt, up to and excluding the Mediterranean coast.
Operationally, this means the Israeli army may push back the Qassam missile launching sites from the border and distance this harassment from the Israeli population, but may not destroy terrorist arms and missile caches and their means of production.
Israel is also enabled to deal only partially with the smuggling system for the weapons, explosives, fighters and cash, which nourish the Gaza Strip’s Palestinian terrorist groups through Sinai.
2. The IDF must operate only in sparsely-populated areas and desist from actions that may cause extensive Palestinian civilian casualties.
3. The IDF will not capture the main cities, e.g. Gaza City, Rafah and Khan Younes.
4. After clearing captured areas of Hamas, Jihad Islami and other Palestinian terrorists, the Israeli army must pull out and hand the cleansed territory to the forces of the Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
Israel must enable the passage of those forces from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip and allow them to establish military bases for launching their offensives to recapture the entire Gaza Strip, thereby reversing Hamas’ success in forcing their retreat six months ago.
Point 4 was tagged onto the list during the US president’s talks with Abbas in Ramallah Thursday, Jan. 10.
The Palestinian leader proposed that Bush’s assent to an Israel counter-terror operation in the Gaza Strip be exploited for the IDF to prepare the ground for his Fatah-ruled Palestinian Authority to regain its control of the lost territory.
It was agreed between Bush, Abbas and Olmert, that the details of this plan be worked out after the US president returns home at the end of his Middle East tour.
The Bush-Olmert understanding entrusted defense minister Ehud Barak with leading and charting the Gaza operation, determining its timeline and being responsible to Washington for the IDF not stepping out of the above preset boundaries.
It will also be up to Barak to decide whether to pursue the objective in phased offensives.
DEBKAfile’s military sources report that the Olmert government’s acceptance of this plan has stirred outrage in the IDF high command, general staff, southern command and the security establishment.
For the first time in its 60 years of independence, Israel’s national army is being pressed into service to capture a territory on behalf of a foreign entity. They ask by what authority did the prime minister and defense minister sign off on a plan which is an immoral distortion of the IDF’s longstanding mission.
The notion that members of Israel’s people’s army, which is duty bound to defend the state, may be ordered to fight and lay down their lives in the service of the Palestinian Authority, presents every serviceman with an irreconcilable dilemma.
It might be easier if they were permitted to eradicate the Palestinian missile threat and war machine, stock, lock and barrel. But this is ruled out by Bush.
The IDF found it difficult enough to recover its equilibrium from the political task to forcibly evict Jewish communities from the Gaza Strip foisted on it by the Sharon-Olmert-Livni government in 2005. Today, Israeli policy-makers, the United States and the Palestinian Authority are contemplating saddling the soldiers with another political undertaking: to turn around the Fatah’s defeat in its internecine war with Hamas.
Israeli generals and security chiefs caution the government against accepting this perilous and self-destructive adventure and point to its glaring flaws.
Its very conception has distorted the peace process so that the burden of its success rests on the IDF’s shoulders. If a military campaign succeeds in gaining control of parts of Gaza on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, peace talks will resume with Abbas’ standing much enhanced. But if the results are mixed, like in the 2006 Lebanon War under Olmert’s direction, the Palestinian leader will drop Israel and the United States like hot coals, turn coat and seek an understanding with Hamas for a re-united front against Israel.
Already, since the plan was floated, Israel-Palestinian talks have petered out and become irrelevant, while negotiations for the release of the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilead Shalit have been put on ice. Hamas will on no account discuss terms for his release with a large-scale Israeli offensive hanging over Gaza.
Another of the plan’s fundamental flaws is that the Palestinian Authority is in effect leaderless, rudderless and is bereft of the professional security strength for following up on the deal.
The Bush-Olmert-Abbas plan would have the Israeli military pull their irons out of the fire when it is common knowledge that once inside Gaza, PA security forces will quickly disintegrate and be swallowed up by the far more resolute Hamas. It was therefore proposed in Bush’s talks in Ramallah and Jerusalem that the Israeli Air Force and artillery provide support for the Palestinian takeover of the Gaza Strip, a tactic the US army employs for local forces in Iraq.
For the Israeli Defense Forces, this proposal is totally unacceptable.
For one thing, the Palestinian Authority’s security services are riddled with wanted terrorists.
Furthermore, Abbas and his elite officials are not considered representative by the bulk of the Palestinian people (who in Jan. 2006 voted Hamas into office). Neither are they trusted to execute complicated strategies.
Finally, the Bush-Olmert policy of placing all their bets for a Middle East breakthrough on the inept Mahmoud Abbas condemns their plan to failure.
At the dinner Olmert hosted in honor of the US president Thursday night, several ministers pointed out these hard facts to Bush and told him bluntly that he is gambling all his hopes for peace on a non-existent entity called the Palestinian Authority.
The US president answered: “I agree. That really is a problem.”