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Israel generals on scope of war

Israeli bombardment of Gaza
Gaza has been hit hard in Israel's onslaught and prospects of a let-up are faint

By Tim Franks
BBC News, Jerusalem

Even as the United Nations secretary general sets off on a tour of the region, the Israeli military has been launching raids ever deeper into Gaza City.

But is this gradual expansion of the ground operation merely intended to speed the work of the diplomats, or is there a precise military goal in mind?

Yaakov Amidror, a former major general in military intelligence, believes Israel should go into Gaza as decisively as it went into the West Bank during the second intifada.

"To conquer Gaza," he says, "to clean it of military capabilities of Hamas, to put Hamas in a situation where even if they want to attack Israel, they can't: this is the situation in the West Bank."

Mr Amidror concedes that few people inside Israel want to put the 1.5 million Palestinians inside Gaza back under full Israeli control.

But he says it would be a feasible and convincing military answer to the question of how to stop the rockets.

Forcing Egypt

Maj Gen Giora Eiland, the former head of Israel's National Security Council, disagrees.

The creation of chaos is not necessarily better than to have a weakened Hamas
Maj Gen Giora Eiland
He concedes that a wide military re-occupation of Gaza is certainly an option. But he favours halting operations now, and instead turning the screw on Egypt.

The ideal, he says, would be to stop arms smuggling by forcing Egypt to police a buffer zone five to 10 kilometres (three to seven miles) around Gaza's south-western border.

And you can get Egypt to act, he says, by squeezing everyone in Gaza even tighter.

His ultimatum would be simple: "We will be ready to open these passages and re-supply all the needs of Gaza only when we see a reasonable solution to the security on the border between Egypt and Gaza."

Most of the talk so far, particularly among Israel's politicians, has been about ending the rocket attacks and preventing arms smuggling.

'One thousand for one'

But there is another goal which the senior echelons of the military discuss - releasing Gilad Shalit, the soldier captured by Hamas two and a half years ago.

Palestinians captured by Israeli forces in Gaza
Palestinian prisoners could find themselves used as bargaining chips
In the words of one retired senior officer, it may not be a military imperative, but it is a "moral" imperative.

Maj Gen Uzi Dayan is another former National Security Advisor. He says that Cpl Shalit's fate goes to the heart of the "gentleman's agreement" in Israel.

That is that Israel's citizen army will go wherever the state demands that it fight and in return the state will do all it can to bring back its soldiers from the field of battle.

Maj Gen Dayan thinks that Israel's military objectives should extend beyond stopping rockets, to mass arrests.

He says Israel now has a "good opportunity to arrest 1,000 Hamas members": that should be enough, he says, to speed Cpl Shalit's return to Israel.

Hamas weakened

You might expect these former commanders to sound confident and clear - that is in the nature of senior officers.

But Maj Gen Eiland also has a warning. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has mused about the desirability of toppling Hamas altogether from running Gaza.

"It could be the creation of chaos," Maj Gen Eiland argues. "It is not necessarily better than to have a weakened Hamas."

That, at least, he says, would be "one accountable government, that has something to lose, something to deliver to its own people."

Israeli military on Gaza border
The Israeli military knows it does not have all the time it wants in Gaza
A complete collapse of Hamas, and a complete re-occupation of Gaza would not be, he adds, drily, "exactly consistent with our real interests".

The military goals, and the size of the military operations will, in the end, be decided by the prime minister and his senior colleagues.

They have the advantage of solid public support inside Israel.

But all the military men are agreed - Israel has only a few days at most to set its final aims and deployments.

The scale of Palestinian casualties has troubled much of the world. Diplomats are working hard to nail down the details of a ceasefire.

Israel - as one senior officer put it - "may have all the time in the world; but the world does not have all the time for Israel".


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