Israelis threaten to retake Gaza-Egypt border

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (Reuters) — Several Israeli Cabinet ministers called on Sunday for a military operation to retake control of Gaza’s southern border and prevent Palestinian fighters smuggling weapons from neighbouring Egypt.

“Action must be taken without hesitation,” Industry and Trade Minister Eli Yishai of the religious party Shas told reporters.

“Any hesitation is dangerous and we must act immediately.” Israel is engaged in a massive offensive in Gaza aimed at stopping Palestinian fighters from firing rockets into Israel.

More than 250 Palestinians, half of them civilians, have died.

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.

In the latest Israeli-Palestinian violence, Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian fighter near the West Bank city of Jenin, medics said. An army spokesman claimed that the soldiers had been on an operation to arrest a fighter and had fired at Palestinians who attacked them with gunfire, bombs and rocks.

Yishai’s call to move back into the 12km Gaza border zone, more than a year after Israel pulled troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip, was echoed by two other Cabinet ministers and a senior military commander.

Israel began its assault in Gaza after Palestinian fighters in the territory captured a soldier in Israel in a raid in June.

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

Israel estimates that since the withdrawal tonnes 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 Hizbollah fighters during the recent Lebanon war, and which has been hard put to stop the rocket fire by Gazan fighters.

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 — which may entail razing Palestinian homes.

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 activist from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fateh 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. 

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