Thursday, December 29, 2011

IDF warns of 'painful' Gaza incursion if terror continues

Chief of General Staff, commander of Southern Brigade say another Gaza operation could be around the corner • Active duty brigades have already begun carrying out drills in preparation for a possible operation.
Lilach Shoval, Zeev Klein, with additional reporting by Gadi Golan and Israel Hayom Staff

On the third anniversary of Israel's three-week Operation Cast Lead offensive in Gaza, the general sense among Israel Defense Forces troops is that the next operation against Hamas' terrorist infrastructure is closer than ever. On Thursday, a rocket was fired from Gaza into the Eshkol region, exploding in an open area and causing no damage or injuries, Army Radio reported. This was the fifth rocket to hit the region since the IAF bombed Gaza Tuesday night, killing three Palestinian terrorists who were planning terror attacks.

The Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson's Unit issued a statement Thursday revealing that IAF jets had also carried out attacks overnight Wednesday, bombing a smuggling tunnel and a terror center in central Gaza. "The strike was in retaliation for the high-trajectory fire targeting southern Israel. The IDF will not tolerate any attempt to harm the citizens of Israel or its soldiers. We will continue to take measures against anyone who employs terror against the state of Israel," the statement said.

Speaking about the situation in Gaza, Gaza Division Southern Brigade Commander Col. Tal Harmoni, said Wednesday that while Operation Cast Lead had "achieved its objectives, the situation has changed."

"Today the region [Gaza] is relatively quiet and thriving. The other side is responding but in a measured fashion, and if the cracks widen we are prepared to launch another offensive, a different and more versatile [than the last] offensive, in order to renew deterrence," he said.

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According to Harmoni, what happens next will be dictated by the residents of the Gaza Strip. "The decision is in their hands. If they do not prevent rocket fire and stop terrorist cells from leaving the Gaza Strip and infiltrating Israel through Sinai, we will unleash a painful campaign on the Gaza Strip," Harmoni said.

The Colonel's statements came on the heels of Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz's statements to an audience of combat soldiers, telling them to prepare for an operation in the Gaza Strip should one become necessary.

In an earlier interview on Tuesday with journalist and TV host Ilana Dayan, on the occasion of IDF Soldiers Appreciation Day, Gantz hailed 2008's Operation Cast Lead as "an excellent operation," saying it resulted in increased deterrence for Israel in the face of Hamas. He added, however, that the war was far from over. "From time to time we have to deal with rocket fire from Gaza and we know that terrorists are gaining strength and expanding their base on Egyptian territory. I don't think Israel will be able to tolerate a continuing threat from Hamas in Gaza. Sooner or later we will have to launch a new large-scale operation in Gaza. The IDF knows how to strike terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip. Any potential operation would be planned in advance, initiated from our side, and carried out quickly."

Active duty brigades have already begun carrying out drills in preparation for a possible operation. A senior officer said on Wednesday that such an operation would indeed occur if the situation called for it.

The IDF has recently reported that Hamas was digging tunnels into Israel with the goal of abducting Israeli soldiers. Their motivation to kidnap an Israeli soldier comes after the "success" of the Gilad Shalit abduction, the cross-border raid that ended with the Hamas capture of the Israeli soldier who was eventually traded for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in October of this year. "From an intelligence and infrastructure standpoint we are making great efforts not to be caught off guard [by an abduction attempt], to be less surprised than we were last time. We learned a lesson from Gilad Shalit's abduction and I believe soldiers know what is expected of them."

Harmoni also mentioned the targeted assassinations in Gaza on Tuesday that prevented a terror attack. "We performed the strikes knowing the risks, Hamas also understood that the cell was on its way to perpetrate a terror attack, which has now been thwarted or delayed."

According to reports in Gaza, the first attack killed Abdallah Telbani, 22, of the Al-Quds Brigade, striking his motorized rickshaw in the Jabaliya refugee camp, 4 kilometers (2.5 m) north of Gaza City. Another terrorist was wounded in the attack carried out by an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV).

The Gaza Strip did not remain quiet after the IDF strike. Terrorists fired four Qassam rockets on Wednesday from the northern part of the Gaza Strip. There were no casualties or damage from the rockets. Another rocket was fired Wednesday overnight but failed to explode upon landing in the northwestern Negev.

Meanwhile, in light of regional threats, the Knesset's joint defense budget committee approved a NIS 1.65 billion ($433 million) increase in defense spending, which will total NIS 60.7 billion ($16 billion) this year.

The joint committee is headed by MK Shaul Mofaz (Kadima) and is comprised of members from the Finance and Foreign Affairs and Defense committees. The committee approved the budget increase after a round of late-night phone calls among the ministers in response to demands made by Mofaz. The budget increase will be funded by the excess money that various ministries did not use this year.

Finance Committee Chairman MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) criticized Mofaz for sidestepping the Knesset's authority by delaying the budget increase and putting the matter to a government vote. Gafni claimed that the Finance Ministry's budget surplus could also be used to fund free day care for babies and toddlers, a demand made by many citizens during the summer's social protests. However, Gafni said, Mofaz should not have delayed the increase in defense spending, lest the money go back to the Finance Ministry which would use it for its own purposes. "The national budget has a NIS 5 billion ($1.3 billion) surplus that will come back to the Finance Ministry as it was not used by other ministries. There are many [inefficient] money pits in Israel's budget, we do not need to trim the defense budget to pay for un-met [social] needs," Gafni said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to discuss the planned NIS 3 billion ($787.5 million) cut to the defense budget, set to begin in 2012.

The Defense and Finance Ministries have sparred for years over the former's high budgetary needs and latter's demand for transparency in its spending. The Trajtenberg committee this summer recommended that the Defense Ministry trim its budget, a recommendation met with open approval by the Finance Ministry. The Defense Ministry warned that budget cuts would hamper the defense establishment's ability to protect the state.

The defense establishment and Finance Ministry both expect Netanyahu to veto the budget cut.

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