Israelis threaten to retake Gaza-Egypt border

By Dan Williams
Oct 22, 12:56 PM (ET)

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Several Israeli cabinet ministers called on Sunday for a military operation to retake control of Gaza's southern border and prevent Palestinian militants smuggling weapons from neighboring Egypt.

"Action must be taken without hesitation. Any hesitation is dangerous and we must act immediately," Industry and Trade Minister Eli Yishai of the religious party Shas told reporters.

"When we left the Philadelphi corridor, I said that abandoning it is a doorway to hell," he said, using Israel's term for the 12 km (7.5 mile)-long border zone.

Yishai's call to move back into the corridor, more than a year after Israel pulled troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip, was echoed by two other cabinet ministers, as well as a senior commander of military forces in the area.

Palestinian government spokesman Ghazi Hamad denounced the proposal as a potential ruse for an Israeli reoccupation of Gaza -- something Israel has said repeatedly is not in the works.

"The call to retake the border is a serious escalation and an incitement for more Israeli aggression," Hamad said.

Israel is engaged in a massive offensive in Gaza aimed at stopping Palestinian militants from firing rockets into Israel. More than 250 Palestinians, half of them civilians, have died.

Israel began its assault after Palestinian gunmen in the territory abducted a soldier in Israel in a raid in June.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said the army would act against all Palestinian militant groups in the Gaza Strip whenever a rocket would be fired from the area.

"There is no situation in which we examine who fired the rocket," he told world Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. "The moment it's fired into Israel, the army will act against all terror organizations without differentiating who it belonged to."

Israel estimates that since the withdrawal tons of munitions, including advanced shoulder-fired missiles, have been spirited across from Egypt in a network of underground tunnels.

That has rung alarm bells in an Israeli military still reeling from its difficulty in beating back well-armed Hezbollah guerrillas during the recent Lebanon war, and which has been hard put to stop the rocket fire by Gazan militants.

Yom-Tov Samia, a reservist major-general on special assignment as deputy chief of the Southern Command, called for the Gaza border corridor to be retaken and its buffer zone widened -- something that may entail razing Palestinian homes.

"The objective would be to prevent Hamas from replicating what happened with Hezbollah in Lebanon," Samia told Israel's Army Radio, referring to the governing Palestinian faction. "This would have to take place in the coming days or weeks."

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was expected to convene top ministers on Tuesday or Wednesday to discuss the option of a major anti-smuggling operation in Gaza, political sources said.

But the sources voiced doubt that any such mission, with its attendant Palestinian casualties and strains on Israel's strategic ties with Egypt, would go ahead before a planned trip by Olmert to the United States in mid-November.

In the Gaza Strip, masked gunmen killed a senior militant from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah group, which is locked in a power struggle with the governing Hamas movement.

At least 19 Palestinians have been killed in inter-factional fighting this month.