Israel's patience with the growing menace from the Gaza Strip appears to be wearing thin.
Government and military officials spoke openly Sunday of the need to move fast to stop Palestinian terrorists from turning the coastal territory into a "second Lebanon" threatening southern Israel.
At the heart of the concerns is the so-called Philadelphi route, Gaza's seven-mile-long southern border, which, since Israel's withdrawal of soldiers and settlers last year, has seen unbridled arms smuggling from neighboring Egypt.
"When we left the Philadelphi route, I said that abandoning it was to open the gates of hell. We might have to find a way to retake it," Industry and Trade Minister Eli Yishai said Sunday before the weekly Cabinet meeting. The call was echoed by at least two other ministers. Already, Israeli forces are carrying out pinpoint missions at the border to uncover and destroy underground tunnels that provide the main conduit for Egyptian contraband.
In the southern Gaza town of Rafah, soldiers killed two gunmen Monday who tried to attack Israeli forces working to uncover arms-smuggling tunnels.
Israeli forces also killed at least seven Palestinians in the northern Gaza city of Beit Hanoun. Military sources said the fatalities were members of a Popular Resistance Committees rocket crew that was ambushed by commandos. However, there is more at stake than the regular rocket barrages by Palestinian terrorists or the fate of an Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, abducted to Gaza on June 25 in a cross-border raid.
Still recovering from the Lebanon war, Israel wants to stop Hamas and other Palestinian factions from adopting Hezbollah's methods and turning Gaza into a second front against the Jewish state.
"We should prevent Hamas from replicating what happened with Hezbollah in Lebanon. This would have to take place in the coming days or weeks," said Yom-Tov Samia, a retired Israeli major general who was called up for emergency reserve duty as deputy chief of military forces around Gaza.
Also of concern is Hamas' threat of further kidnappings. Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar of Hamas told protesters in Gaza over the weekend, "We will abduct more soldiers if Israel does not release Palestinian prisoners."
Samia called for Israel to retake the Philadelphi route and massively expand its buffer zone to enable a large-scale tunnel hunt. This almost certainly would entail razing Palestinian homes en masse along the frontier. "There is no other way to control Philadelphi," Samia told Army Radio. "We must simply go in there and stay there until peace and quiet reign for 25 straight years."
It's unclear whether Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is in a position to order such sweeping moves. Israelis remember Olmert as the most vocal champion of the Gaza withdrawal, which was masterminded by his predecessor, Ariel Sharon. Since the Lebanon war, however, Olmert has made no secret of having to revise his diplomatic vision. With right-wing parties such as Yisrael Beiteinu expected to join the coalition government, the prime minister may have an extra incentive to crack down in Gaza. An alliance with Yisrael Beiteinu was formalized Monday and the Cabinet will vote on it Wednesday. Lieberman would become minister of strategic affairs, a new portfolio dealing primarily with the Iranian nuclear threat.
Political sources said Olmert likely would convene his Security Cabinet Tuesday or Wednesday to decide about a major Philadelphi operation. But few expect Olmert to initiate such an operation before his trip next month to the United States, which will include consultations with President Bush and an appearance at the United Jewish Communities' 75th General Assembly in Los Angeles.
Then again, the timing may be hijacked by the Palestinians.
"The decision to embark on an operation will be made in Israel an hour after a Kassam kills two small children in Sderot," Nahum Barnea wrote in Yediot Achronot.
Sderot is an Israeli town just outside Gaza's border that has been hit repeatedly by Palestinian rockets.
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