Israel to stay on sidelines as Palestinian civil war rages

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s defence minister vowed Thursday not to let Hamas’ near takeover of Gaza spill over into violence against the Jewish state. Some Israelis are calling on the military to invade the coastal strip, but for now, the government seems more inclined to stay out of the internal Palestinian conflict.The defence minister, Amir Peretz, convened his top security officials to discuss possible Israeli reactions to the Palestinian infighting in Gaza but decided, for the time being, to refrain from complicating the volatile situation in Gaza. Instead, he issued a vague warning that Israel would not allow the violence to reach Israel, meeting participants said.

Israeli officials said that when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert meets US President George W. Bush in Washington next week, he will recommend a policy aimed at preventing a Hamas takeover of the West Bank. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Olmert favours cutting contacts between the two entities, which are separated by 40 kilometres of Israeli territory.

Security officials and analysts say Israel has nothing to gain from meddling in Gaza.

“It’s too late for us to get involved. There is no aim we can achieve in a military operation,” said Reuven Pedatzur, an Israeli defence expert at the Centre for Strategic Dialogue in Netanya, near Tel Aviv. “What are we supposed to do — take over the entire strip and hand it over to [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas?” Some hardline lawmakers propose just that — despite the fact that Israel withdrew all its forces and settlers from the region two years ago.

“It is high time for Israel to deliver a heavy blow to the Hamas terrorist network. If this will help Fateh regain control, I don’t mind, but we have to do it for our own sake,” said Yuval Steinitz of the hawkish Likud Party.

“If Israel doesn’t stop this, we will have a worse threat than that from the north,” a reference to Lebanon.

In last summer’s inconclusive war against Iranian-armed Hizbollah in Lebanon, Israel was pounded by thousands of rockets that forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee.

Olmert has said he fears a Hamas victory, but ruled out Israeli support for the Fateh forces. Instead, he has floated the idea of deploying an international force on the Gaza-Egypt border.

“If the Gaza Strip falls into Hamas hands this will have regional implications,” he warned this week. “Israel condemns this and will defend itself and its citizens against all attacks of terror groups as necessary. We can’t go into the Gaza Strip in order to fight for the Palestinian pragmatic forces facing the extremist forces.” An issue Israel must address is the border crossings.

Israel controls the main cargo crossing, Karni, and the passage for people between Israel and Gaza, Erez.

Israel has frequently closed the Karni crossing, citing security threats, causing shortages of food and raw materials in Gaza. Israel does not deal with Hamas, and the exit of Fateh forces from the vital crossings would make it difficult for Israel to keep them open.

The Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt is supervised by European monitors, with Israel in the background.

Last week, security forces loyal to Abbas asked for Israeli permission to import anti-tank missiles, grenades and other weapons to shore them up in their battle against Hamas.

But Israel is reluctant to agree for fear that the weapons would be seized by Hamas and ultimately turned against Israel.

Hamas has been smuggling arms through tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border, and a Hamas-controlled Gaza would likely bring it more rockets and weapons that could be used against Israel. Hamas fighters have fired hundreds of rockets at Israeli border towns, drawing Israeli retaliatory fire and small-scale ground operations in the strip in recent weeks.

Retired army general Danny Rothschild said a full-scale Israeli offensive into Gaza would be foolish.

“Israel cannot do anything and should not do anything,” said Rothschild, head of the Council for Peace and Security, an advisory body of former military officers.

“History teaches us that anywhere we have tried to intervene in the internal affairs of others, it has never worked.” Rothschild estimated that after Hamas takes over Gaza, the bloodshed will spread to the West Bank, where Fateh forces will try to solidify their control. Here, too, he said, Israel would have to stay on the sidelines, and ultimately deal with two separate entities — a Fateh-controlled West Bank and a Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

Only then, perhaps, could Israel take action against Hamas, while talking peace with Fateh.

Israel has ruled out talking to Hamas, because it refuses to recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept past agreements.

Instead, Israel seems poised to watch and wait as Gaza falls to an Islamic group that has sent hundreds of suicide bombers into Israeli cities.

“Gaza is lost. We now have the worst of all worlds, and we have nothing to do,” Pedatzur said. “Israel, unfortunately, is out of options.”

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