Sunday, May 20, 2007

TEL AVIV — Israel may invite a multinational force to deploy along Gaza’s border with Egypt in order to block shipments of sophisticated weapons to Palestinian militants, a government official said yesterday.

Such a deployment would mark the first time Israel has agreed to let a multinational force serve in the Palestinian territories.

Consideration of the step is driven by concern about Hamas’ improving capability to fire rockets into Israel and fears that Israeli counter-attacks will simply strengthen support for Hamas in its power struggle with the more moderate Fatah party.

Palestinians exploded in anger after the latest such attack yesterday, an air strike that killed eight persons outside the home of Khalil al-Haya, the Hamas leader in the Palestinian legislature.

“We are telling the mujahedeen of the [Hamas-led] Al Qassam Brigades: ‘Go hit them,’ ” said Jamila Shanti, a Palestinian parliament member who last year led an audacious women’s march that allowed 70 gunmen holed up in a mosque to escape an Israeli siege.

“The more they squeeze us, the stronger we get,” she said outside Mr. al-Haya’s home in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas militants have for months fired crude rockets at the Israeli town of Sderot, usually with little effect. But as their capability improves, the Israelis fear they will acquire hardware allowing them to strike at population centers deeper in Israel, such as the coastal city of Ashkelon.

“We didn’t leave Gaza to return, and yet there is a very real problem of smuggling,” said the Israeli official, who spoke on the condition he not be identified.

“The idea of having an international force on the border, combined with an Egyptian force on their side of the border, would prevent Israel from having to come back to Gaza.”

The house targeted in yesterday’s air raid lies close to the Gaza Strip’s eastern border with Israel in a warren of dusty streets and low buildings. A blood-spattered iron door and a ripped-apart white chair bore testimony to the deadly hit.

Mr. al-Haya was not at home at the time of the strike, in which one missile was fired from an unmanned drone. He and his wife have stayed away from the house for the past week fearing an attack by Fatah, neighbors said.

As fighting between Hamas and Fatah escalated in recent days, Hamas stepped up its attacks on Sderot in what was seen as a deliberate attempt to provoke Israeli attacks that would consolidate support for Hamas.

Gaza hospitals still are crammed with hundreds injured from the internecine clashes, and many residents have lost everything as their apartments were taken over by gunmen who in turn were targeted with rocket-propelled grenades.

“I could bear it if the Israelis had done it,” said Ribhi Barghouti, 50, who clutched his son and daughter as he described the loss of his apartment and life savings. “But to have my own Palestinian people behaving like this and killing each other, that just breaks my heart.”

The Israeli Cabinet decided yesterday to step up attacks on the Islamic fundamentalists, but passed up proposals for a broad offensive in Gaza against Hamas, according to reports.

With Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s public approval ratings near zero, there seems to be little political backing for a costly and dangerous ground operation.

The international border team under consideration would probably be based on the model of the U.N. peacekeeper force that deployed in Lebanon under a Security Council resolution that ended last summer’s border war.

Those peacekeepers have had mixed success from the Israeli perspective. They have kept Hezbollah forces from redeploying near the Israeli border, but have not stopped the flow of arms from Syria to Hezbollah.

The proposal for a multinational force in Gaza, first reported by the Ha’aretz newspaper, originated in the Israeli Foreign Ministry and envisions close cooperation with Egyptian border police. The soldiers would take up positions along the Philadelphi Corridor once patrolled by Israel.

Military commentator Ron Ben Yishai noted on the news Web site that Israeli Defense Force troops themselves had little success in stopping the smuggling of weapons over that border.

“Do they really believe in Jerusalem that a French or Spanish force — working in cooperation with the Egyptians — will succeed where the IDF failed?”

• Ismail Rabah in Shejayieh, Gaza Strip, contributed to this article. His reporting is distributed by World News & Features.

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