With goals unmet in Gaza, Israel military wants more time

JERUSALEM - More than two weeks into its devastating campaign to destabilize Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli military has not achieved all of its goals, prompting some top strategists to push for more time to undermine the Islamist group's ability to attack Israel.

Israeli political leaders indicated Sunday that they were looking to bring the fighting to an end soon, even as their military tightened its grip on Gaza City and some military officers openly advocated continuing the offensive.

Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert both suggested that they want to halt the operation without sending thousands of Israeli soldiers into the heart of the Gaza Strip.

Peres said that the operation should last only another two or three days and cautioned that government leaders "need to think, and not let this get out of hand."

"I hope we are racing to the end," Peres told Israel's Channel 2. "Not that I am recommending we stop, but because they have had enough.

At the weekly cabinet meeting, Olmert declared that "Israel is nearing the goals that it set for itself," but said "further patience, determination and effort" were needed to secure a victory.

Israel has vowed to end the military campaign when two major goals are met: Ensuring that Hamas is not able to use tunnels between Gaza and Egypt to smuggle in more weapons, and bringing an end to incessant rocket fire from Gaza militants that have killed four Israelis in the past two weeks.

But neither of those two goals has been met.

Maj. Avital Leibovich estimated that Israeli airstrikes had destroyed 80 percent of the smuggler tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. But that still leaves an estimated 50 tunnels intact, and there have been no assurances from Egypt that it will take steps to ensure the damaged tunnels won't be rebuilt.

Without such assurances, Israel might need to retake control of the narrow 8-mile-long border area known as the Philadelphi corridor, where most of the smuggling occurs, Shabtai Shavit, a former head of Israel's Mossad spy agency, told Israel Radio.

"It may not sound politically correct," Shavit said. "But we may not have any choice but to control a strip of land along the Philadelphi from our side."

Israel also has been unable to halt rocket fire from Gaza. More than 20 rockets were fired at southern Israeli towns and cities on Sunday, and Israel won't be able to curb the attacks without assurances from Hamas.

Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, the head of the Israeli military intelligence branch during its 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, said a failure to secure a political deal soon could force Israel to go so far as to bring an end to Hamas rule of the Gaza Strip.

"Toppling them is something we'd like to see happening there, but we don't want to be the one to replace them," said Kuperwasser. "This is not the goal of the operation, but if they force us to go in and in and in, this might end up as the outcome."

Leaders of the military operation have told Israeli reporters that they believe that Hamas has been discombobulated by its offensive. They estimate that 300 fighters have been killed and that top Hamas leaders have fled to Egypt.

But Hamas leaders have offered no sign that they are willing to capitulate and have vowed to fight until Israel pulls its soldiers out of Gaza and ends its economic chokehold that has crippled the Palestinian economy by blocking the import and export of virtually everything but critical aid, fuel and supplies.

That's led some Israeli military leaders to advocate pressing ahead with the military campaign, despite the growing numbers of civilian casualties and rising international indignation at the campaign.

During a visit last week to the south, the head of Israel's southern operation reportedly told Olmert that stopping now would allow Hamas to rebuild.

Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant told Olmert that Israel had a "once in a generation" chance to cripple Hamas, according to Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.

"If we don't do that, we'll be missing an historic opportunity," Galant said.

Doing so, however, would require Israel to push deeper into Gaza's densely-populated cities and refugee camps where they face unknown challenges from Hamas fighters.

On Sunday, Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu, the Israeli military's chief spokesman said the soldiers were facing "an insane reality of booby-trapped tunnels and booby-trapped schools." The Israeli military released a video showing a rudimentary zoo that had apparently been rigged with explosives by Gaza militants.

Max Gaylard, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinian territories, warned that civilians in Gaza were "bearing the brunt" of the fighting and urged both sides to accept a U.N. resolution calling for a cease-fire.

Palestinians forced from their homes by advancing Israeli forces are finding that few places in Gaza are safe from the fighting, said Gaylard, who noted that Palestinians are unable to escape because Israel and Egypt won't open their borders to let residents flee.

"This is a conflict where the civilian population has nowhere to go, nowhere to hide," Gaylard said.

Meanwhile, Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported that a preliminary investigation by the Israeli military had found that an "errant" mortar meant to hit militants 30 yards away from a U.N. school was responsible to an explosion that killed more than 40 Palestinians seeking refuge in the educational compound.

The Israeli military, which had initially claimed that its forces had targeted militants who'd fired a mortar round from the school, soon backed off, saying the militants had been near the school. Sunday, the military refused to comment on the Haaretz report.

But the story elicited a sharp retort from Chris Gunness, spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency known as UNRWA, which has adamantly challenged early Israeli contentions that the school had been used to fire mortars.

"With every change of its position, the IDF's credibility and accusations against UNRWA and others is seriously dented," said Gunness. "That's why we want an independent investigation. The facts must speak for themselves."

(Special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.)


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