Last Wednesday, during a nighttime cabinet meeting following the suicide bombing in Haifa that killed 16 people, government ministers heard a report from security officials on Israel Defense Forces activities in the Gaza Strip. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and senior IDF and Shin Bet officials explained that the extensive operations in the West Bank enabled the IDF to take control over the terror infrastructure there, despite the fact that Palestinians still manage to carry attacks from time to time, and that military efforts are focused now on hitting the Hamas infrastructure, which is based in the Gaza Strip.
The ministers were told that from now on the IDF would seize control of areas in the Strip that it has never entered in the past, and that assassinations would continue. As customary during cabinet meetings, the names of the candidates for assassination were not given, and no distinction was made between military and political leaders.
Senior diplomatic and security sources say that Ibrahim al-Makadme, killed Saturday in an IDF missile attack in Gaza City, was a bona fide military leader and his assassination did not present a diversion from existing policies. "It was said a long time ago that no one would be immune there," a senior diplomatic source said. "Out goal is to annihilate Hamas, as much as is possible."
Security officials reiterated their stand at the cabinet meeting, saying that the Palestinian Authority has enough manpower in the field to take control over the Hamas infrastructure in the Gaza Strip, but Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat doesn't want to do that and doesn't allow his men to act, and as a result Hamas is threatening to take control over the Strip and present a ruling alternative to the PA. This development is undesirable for Israel, and therefore it has no choice but to fight Hamas.
The question floating in the air during the cabinet meeting was how to respond to the Haifa bombing without creating an escalation that would annoy the United States on the eve of the expected war on Iraq. The diplomatic echelon in Jerusalem estimates that Israel will enjoy almost full freedom of action in the territories, on condition that it avoid mistakes and harming innocent civilians.
The U.S. administration is prepared for any Israeli action that could be interpreted as legitimate self-defense, and would not look like an attempt to take advantage of the attack on Iraq. "The red line is known to everyone, and when the U.S. administration thinks that we have crossed it, they make it very clear to us, as was the case in the recent siege on Arafat's headquarters last September," a government source in Jerusalem said Saturday.
The U.S. administration avoided criticizing recent IDF operations in the Gaza Strip and did not put pressure on Israel to stop them. Israel was condemned only for harming Palestinian civilians and for the humanitarian distress in the territories. In this case as well the U.S. administration was relatively moderate and Jerusalem noticed the inconsistencies in U.S. behavior: the criticism was delivered by White House and State Department spokesmen, but in private talks and in diplomatic channels, the Americans avoided raising the issue with Israeli officials.
In Jerusalem, this double standard is explained by the administration's need to show its European and Arab allies that it is concerned with the situation of the Palestinians, without applying any real pressure on Israel. That is why the U.S. made do with public announcements that were not particularly vehement.
The conclusion that Israel can draw from the U.S. administration's behavior is that the IDF can continue to operate in the territories even when U.S. airplanes are bombing Baghdad. Israel has no urgent need to "clean out" the area or complete the Gaza operation before the U.S. launches its offensive against Iraq.
Israel is being attacked, and President George Bush and the U.S administration accept Israel's right to defend itself and deal with those behind the terror. In addition, the Americans make no distinction between the political and military wings of Hamas, and see them both as legitimate targets.