Israel reconsiders Gaza Strip attack

leaks rile officials

Tanks remain on border as Palestinians prepare for possible army strike

May 11, 2002|By COX NEWS SERVICE

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Israeli leaders reportedly reconsidered yesterday plans for a large offensive against Palestinian militants here, while residents of this impoverished coastal enclave braced for the attack by hoarding food and erecting barricades in the streets.

Top defense officials were said to be upset by leaks about the planned invasion, and there were reports of disputes about the plan within the army.

Still, tanks remained poised on the border of the Gaza Strip, and reservists were undergoing training for the mission, signaling that an attack could come soon.

The military buildup was prompted by a suicide bombing Tuesday night that killed 15 Israelis near Tel Aviv.

In Gaza City, the tension over a possible Israeli attack was broken when the streets came alive at midday with the arrival of 26 exiles from Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, sent to Gaza under a deal brokered by the United States.

An additional 13 men described by Israel as hard-core militants were flown to Cyprus and will later be exiled to other countries.

Crowds and drivers waved, cheered and honked for the men as they arrived.

Many of the exiles had never been to the Gaza Strip before and do not know when they will be able to return their homes in the West Bank.

The street celebration was a temporary diversion from the anticipation of an Israeli attack, which has Gaza residents stocking up on food and gasoline, as well as digging in behind sand barriers and sandbags.

For three days the region has awaited Israel's response to a suicide bombing in a crowded billiards club near Tel Aviv.

The Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas claimed responsibility for the bombing.

It prompted Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to cut short a visit to Washington and threaten tough military action.

In April, Israeli troops took over most of the major cities in the West Bank after a wave of suicide bombings killed dozens of Israelis.

Now, the top leadership of Hamas remains in the Gaza Strip, and an attack there seemed likely.

On Thursday, Israel began massing troops on the borders of the fenced-in, 12-mile-long Gaza Strip and called up reservists, as was done before the West Bank invasion.

However, Israeli news media reported yesterday that Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer had ordered his generals to re-evaluate the battle plan. Israel's Channel 2 TV reported that Ben-Eliezer was concerned about high-level leaks that had made public some aspects of the plan and could have tipped off militants.

Army radio reported that Ben-Eliezer would consider whether to delay or cancel the plan.

It was unclear when the army had originally intended to launch the attack and whether, even with a delay, it could be near its start.

In addition to the reported disarray in the army's upper echelon, the delay comes amid concerns expressed by President Bush that a widespread offensive could harm the chances of redirecting the region from conflict toward what Washington hopes will be a peace process.

Also, Israeli and international human rights groups have warned of the potential for high fatalities on both sides if Israeli troops advance into the densely crowded Gaza Strip with its teeming refugee camps. Militants there have been preparing their defenses for weeks.

In the offensive in the West Bank last month, 29 Israeli soldiers and nearly 200 Palestinians died.

The heaviest fighting was in the Jenin refugee camp, which has about 13,000 people. The camps in the Gaza Strip have up to 100,000 people.

"I'm sure the people will resist until they die. People here have nothing to lose," said Palestinian construction worker Salim Kamel, 35, who lives in the Jabalya Refugee Camp. "I call upon God to make the Israelis change their mind. The solution is only through politics."

While Israel was considering its response to Tuesday's deadly bombing, the specter of new attacks was raised again.

Yesterday morning, a suspected Palestinian attacker detonated a bomb near a bank in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba. Four people were lightly injured.

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