[Freemanlist2] Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff - IDF gearing up for large military operation in Gaza

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IDF gearing up for large military operation in Gaza
By Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, Haaretz Correspondents
Last update - 10:19 04/02/2007

The Israel Defense Forces has accelerated its planning of a possible 
extended military operation in Gaza. Top military sources said the 
escalation of internecine violence was liable to extend to anti-Israel 
violence. They said no operation was slated to take place immediately, but 
that IDF activity in Gaza - similar to the 2002 Operation Defensive Shield 
in the West Bank - may become necessary.

Foreign Ministry Director-General Aharon Abramovich said "there is no doubt 
we are in a difficult period."

He said Israel was watching the violence and was concerned at continued 
weapons smuggling into Gaza as well as rocket fire into Israel despite a 
November 26 truce.

"It is very important to us to be able to achieve dialogue rather than a 
military confrontation with the Palestinians. This is what Israel and the 
international community aim for and I hope this is the line that triumphs," 
Abramovich said.

The IDF and Shin Bet security service are particularly concerned by the 
possibility that Hamas will resume suicide bombings or other attacks on 
Israel, possibly due to accusations that Israel is supporting Fatah, which 
it is not overtly doing.

Hamas is also accumulating large quantities of Qassam rockets, whose range, 
accuracy and strength have improved since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 
the summer of 2005. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are thought to have rockets with 
a range of 15 to 16 kilometers.

Twenty Palestinians were killed in clashes on Friday and Saturday, most of 
them affiliated with Fatah, and at least eight were wounded on Saturday. Ten 
Fatah and Hamas operatives were kidnapped in Gaza and the West Bank over the 
weekend. Fatah torched Islamic University buildings Friday, and Hamas 
torched buildings at the Fatah-affiliated Al-Quds Open University.

Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Khaled Meshal, 
the head of Hamas' political bureau in Damascus, agreed Friday on an 
immediate cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, but it was not immediately 
implemented and the fighting continued over the weekend.

Abbas and Meshal are slated to meet in Mecca, Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to 
discuss the establishment of a national unity government. Senior officials 
in Hamas and Fatah said that despite the recent violence between the two 
groups, an agreement might be reached Tuesday that would leave Hamas Prime 
Minister Ismail Haniyeh in his post and would give three portfolios to 
members of neither organization. Fatah officials said they were worried that 
the violence would escalate if no agreement is reached Tuesday.

Israel currently has no plans to get involved in the fighting between Fatah 
and Hamas. The violence there has not yet negatively affected the security 
situation on the Gaza-Israel border, and there has even been a decrease in 
the number of Qassam rockets that Palestinians have fired at the Negev. 
Although Islamic Jihad is continuing to plan terror attacks against 
Israelis, Hamas and Fatah appear to be too occupied with their conflict to 
attack Israel.

Fatah and Hamas officials agreed in principle on Friday to renew the 
cease-fire reached the day before, and Haniyeh on Saturday called on all 
armed men to withdraw from the streets of Gaza. The Palestinian interior 
minister, a Hamas member, said the groups had agreed to get the gunmen off 
the streets, remove roadblocks and stop the incitement against each other. 
However, the roadblocks were not removed and the militants who had been 
abducted during the fighting were not returned immediately after the truce 
was renewed.

Fatah allegedly arrests Iranian experts

Israeli security officials on Saturday were having difficulty ascertaining 
the credibility of Fatah allegations that the group had arrested seven 
Iranian terrorism experts who had been assisting Hamas.

Fatah said Thursday that it had arrested the Iranians during a raid of the 
Islamic University, a Hamas stronghold in Gaza City. Hamas has denied the 
allegation, and Fatah spokesmen would not confirm the report on Friday.

Israeli officials believe Fatah is making an effort to play down the story, 
either because the initial report was wrong, or because it is true and Fatah 
is concerned that the capture of the Iranians will get it entangled with the 
Iranian government.

Israeli security officials said Iranian experts, along with Hezbollah 
operatives and Palestinians who underwent terrorism training in Iran or 
Lebanon, have entered the Gaza Strip through Rafah in the last few months. 
Some arrived via underground tunnels, while others came in through the 
Gaza-Egypt bor
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