Tuesday, October 24, 2006

TEL AVIV — Applying a lesson from the recent war against Hezbollah, Israeli leaders are increasingly talking about staging a pre-emptive military offensive in the Gaza Strip in order to avert a Hamas buildup of improved missiles.

Israeli forces already operating in the Gaza Strip Monday killed at least nine Palestinians and wounded 20. But officials and politicians say a broader operation against Hamas is necessary if Israel wants to deny it the ability to stockpile weapons like the Shi’ite militia Hezbollah, which was able to build up its arsenal during six years of relative calm.

“We should not allow Hamas to build in Gaza what Hezbollah built in Lebanon,” said Ephraim Sneh, Labor parliamentarian. “[A broad offensive] seems to me almost unavoidable because the accumulation of arms in Gaza in the hands of Hamas and other terror organization is intolerable.”

The talk of an escalation in Gaza comes as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed in principle to bring a far-right party, Yisrael Beitenu, into his coalition.

The move stabilized a coalition whose foundations emerged from the Lebanon war severely shaken. But it also reorients the political constellation of Mr. Olmert’s government toward the right.

Israeli army units, which retook the corridor in Gaza along the Egyptian border this week, have uncovered more than a dozen smuggling tunnels used to sneak weapons, money and contraband into Gaza from Egypt.

At the same time, Israeli intelligence officials say they think that Syria and Iran are supplying Hamas with the advanced anti-tank missiles that turned armored vehicles like the Merkava tank into a sitting ducks, according to local press reports.

Hamas is also thought to be receiving longer-range rockets like the Katyusha missiles fired by the hundreds into northern Israeli this past summer.

Defense Minister Amir Peretz has said that Israel cannot allow Gaza to become another Lebanon. At the same time Mr. Peretz, the chairman of coalition partner Labor party, said that Israel has no desire to reconquer the Gaza Strip permanently.

In the Gaza violence Monday, Palestinians reported three civilian deaths while Israel’s army said soldiers fired because they felt threatened by gunmen from the northeastern Gaza village of Beit Hanoun.

For now, politicians such as Mr. Peretz want to promote diplomatic attempts to release kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, in the hope that a deal would create momentum behind an accord that would avert contributions to Hamas’ arms buildup in Gaza.

“What we are hearing from military officers is that they see the obvious need for an operation,” said a senior Israeli security source. “The politicians are not thrilled by a military operation, but if it becomes necessary, a military operation will be taken.”

Officials say privately they are skeptical whether diplomatic efforts will yield any substantial results in taming the arms buildup and avert a military invasion.

During the monthlong war with Hezbollah, many Israelis questioned why military and government officials allowed the Shi’ite militia to stockpile rockets and build fortifications for so many years.

Barring a deadly militant attack on Israel that gives the government a justification for a Gaza push, Mr. Olmert’s government is likely to wait until he returns from meetings in the United States with President Bush.

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