IDF attacks Hamas targets across Gaza Strip
Israel Air Force aircraft late Sunday bombed a Hamas security building in the central Gaza Strip and two other targets in the southern coastal territory, Palestinian witnesses said.

Witnesses in the central Gaza village of Mughraqa said a missile struck after dark in a cluster of caravans that served as a Hamas security headquarters.

They said the site had been evacuated, apparently after Israel telephoned warnings to Palestinians in Gaza to leave any buildings where weapons were located.

The other two strikes were on suspected sites of tunnels along the border with Egypt, Hamas said. Palestinians reported huge explosions as Israeli warplanes dropped bombs on the border, where Hamas operates tunnels to smuggle in weapons, food and other goods.

Before the attack, Israeli aircraft flew over the Gaza-Egypt border, setting off sonic booms, and witnesses said hundreds of people who work in the tunnels there fled, along with residents.

The news comes as Israel's leadership warned Sunday that the response to the rocket attacks from Gaza would be fierce. The disagreements between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, on the one hand, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak over an "arrangement" with Hamas have intensified.

Olmert and Livni accused Barak Sunday of acting against cabinet decisions, and aides to the prime minister said the Labor chief was "dragging his feet" on a response to the continued Qassam rocket attacks. Livni, meanwhile, warned that Barak is working on a separate, second deal, for a cease-fire with Hamas.

Barak rejected all criticism, describing it as "chatter by those who have never held a weapon."

On Sunday Israel suffered the heaviest barrage of rocket and mortar attacks since a unilateral cease-fire went into effect more than two weeks ago. A total of four Qassam rockets and 14 mortars hit the western Negev, causing light injuries to two Israeli soldiers and a civilian.

Israel did not respond immediately to the attacks from the Gaza Strip, but defense sources said that action is expected in the near future and "everything will depend on the operational opportunity that emerges."

Chief of Military Intelligence Amos Yadlin said Sunday during a cabinet briefing that the rocket and mortar attacks were being carried out by small Palestinian factions, whom he described as belonging to the loose network of "global jihadists."

Military sources said the intelligence suggests that Hamas is trying to contain the attacks and is keen on bolstering the cease-fire with Israel. Nonetheless, political and military sources in Israel said that despite Hamas' efforts, the IDF would take action against the Palestinian Islamist group because Israel considers it responsible in Gaza.

Rockets rain down
Meanwhile, the residents of Sderot and the communities bordering Gaza are finding it difficult to accept the continued rocket fire after Operation Lead Cast and argue that the military offensive should have been allowed to continue.

"This was entirely expected. If the Qassams continue to reach the communities on the Gaza border it means that the army operation was redundant, enormously damaged Israel's image internationally but did not have any results in ending the attacks on the southern communities," said one resident, Ariel Feller.

This view was shared by Segev Kalimian. "We are still waiting for the second stage of Cast Lead, and the Qassam rockets and mortars continue to fall on our area. And it seems that no one in the government cares about us. They are only thinking about their elections next week and it looks like we are going to have to wait for more attacks on Ashdod and Ashkelon for someone in this country to understand that we need to continue with the [military operation]."

The dispute in recent days among the country's ruling troika has divided Kadima's top two politicians, Olmert and Livni, from Labor chief Barak. The Kadima leaders support a harsher response to the rocket attacks - a "disproportional response" - while Barak argues that progress in the talks between Egypt and Hamas on a cease-fire should be given a chance.

Reports have a deal being signed as early as Thursday in Cairo, and the defense minister believes that a more proportionate response to the attacks is warranted. Barak has described this as a response that will bolster Israeli deterrence and lead to a stable cease-fire, avoiding another escalation in the fighting.

"We will respond responsibly and with sound judgment to what is going on in Gaza," Barak said.

Barak's position, which is backed by Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, is being criticized by field officers, including some who took an active role in Operation Lead Cast.

According to these officers, Israel is not keeping its promises to respond harshly against Hamas for every violation of the cease-fire. They expressed concern that the lack of a response will dissolve the military gains on the ground.

"At this rate, we will need to go back in a ground operation in three or four months," one officer said.

The same kind of skepticism was expressed Sunday by sources close to Livni who said that "we remember what happened during the past lull, when Barak reported to the cabinet that the agreement was inevitable, and this should not be repeated."

"We are not certain that today he is actually telling us the whole truth about his talks with Egypt," one of the sources added. "We need to make a decision at the cabinet and go with that to Egypt."

In parallel with talks between Egypt and Hamas, Israel is holding intensive negotiations with the Egyptians. The head of the security-political bureau at the Defense Ministry, Amos Gilad, told the chief of Egyptian intelligence, Gen. Omar Suleiman, that Israel is rejecting the Egypt-Hamas idea of a new cease-fire limited in time. The current proposal is for a cease-fire lasting between one and one and a half years.

Israel is also rejecting verbal accords with Egypt on the character of the response to violations by, including attacks and arms smuggling.

Livni reiterated before the cabinet that she opposed any agreement that granted Hamas legitimacy. "I have been fighting for three years that the world will not talk with Hamas. Whoever negotiates with Egypt to reach an 'arrangement' must understand that this will grant Hamas international legitimacy."

Posted by: Fred 2009-02-02