Israel doesn't have time to wait for Abbas

Amos Harel

Shvat 6, 5765

Statements made by senior Israeli officials following the attack at the Karni crossing on Thursday night sounded as if they had been taken from four years ago, during the days of Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat: "This is the Palestinian Authority's test;" "The Palestinian security mechanisms are doing nothing;" "If they don't act, we'll do it for them;" "There's a limit to our patience."

Once again, Israel is waiting for firm Palestinian moves against the terror organizations; and once again, it is pressuring foreign entities - the United States and the European Union - to get the Palestinian leadership to take action or at least to make promises.

Once again, the Israeli expectations are likely to remain unfulfilled.

The next step is known in advance: The disappointment in the Palestinians will push the Israel Defense Forces into mounting broad offensives in the Gaza Strip. The PA's security mechanisms may not be the primary target, but they will be among those hit.

In recent weeks, Jerusalem fostered many expectations of Mahmoud Abbas. Officials were impressed by his explicit statements denouncing terror, the orderly transfer of power after Arafat's death, the former chairman's quiet funeral, and Abbas' sweeping election victory. But the window of opportunity has not opened up by more than a narrow crack. Assuming Abbas plans to achieve a cease-fire with the Palestinian opposition groups, he wants to do it in his own way and time - through persuasive talks and quiet agreements, without aggressive steps. The trouble is that Israel does not have time to see if he succeeds.

Until now, Jerusalem has restricted its reactions to isolated reprisals and concerned statements following shooting, mortar and bomb attacks in the territories. But the Karni attack was tantamount to the Palestinian organizations spitting in the PA's face. Meanwhile, Sderot is bleeding now more than Kiryat Shmona in its worst days. Three of the town's residents were killed in Karni, and then there was the Qassam rocket attack that critically wounded a young girl there yesterday. Sderot's list of victims is lengthening and the residents are running out of patience.

These events have begun the countdown to a large military operation in the strip. The IDF has been preparing for this for a long time. When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says the disengagement will not take place under fire, he does not mean only the possibility of withdrawing in coordination with the Palestinians, but also to plan B - occupying extensive Palestinian territories to enable the IDF to prevent short-range attacks on the settlements and the roads leading to them, while he is busy clashing with the Israeli objectors to the disengagement plan.

Such a move could include the north of the Gaza Strip, parts of Khan Yunis and the territories adjacent to the Philadelphi route in Rafah.

Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz decided over the weekend to close all border crossings into the Strip, to retaliate locally to any attack on Israelis, and to resume the targeted killings. But the continued escalation may lead to the larger operation much sooner than planned.

Yesterday, the IDF entered the Zeitun neighborhood in the south of Gaza City, initiated clashes with armed activists and killed five Palestinians. Continued firing on Sderot could lead Israel to further steps.