By Aluf Benn, Amos Harel, Avi Issacharoff and Mijal Grinberg, Haaretz Correspondents
The Israel Defense Forces recently presented the cabinet with a contingency plan to counter the firing of Qassam rockets at Israel from the Gaza Strip and thwart Palestinian efforts to consolidate military power there.
The five-point plan includes the creation of a buffer zone on the Palestinian side of the Gaza fence.
The Qassams continued to fall on the western Negev on Tuesday, with a rocket landing in an open area near Sderot. There were no injuries or damage.
Palestinian militants have launched a number of rockets into Israel recently, two of them hitting houses in Sderot. The IDF responded Monday by striking a vehicle that Islamic Jihad used for firing rockets, wounding three militants.
The blueprint presented to the cabinet discusses engaging hostile forces near the security fence surrounding the Strip and employing remote-controlled weapons systems, rather than a ground operation to purge the cities and refugee camps in and around Gaza of militants.
GOC Southern Command, Major-General Yoav Galant, listed five components for the plan:
1. Creating a buffer zone on the Palestinian side of the fence separating the Gaza Strip from Israel. The buffer zone is not intended to see a permanent presence of IDF forces, but rather limited military activities aimed at throwing local terror organizations off balance, as well as keeping them at a distance from the fence.
2. An escalation of retaliatory actions following the firing of Qassam rockets to render launching the rockets counterproductive by extracting a steep price from the Palestinians.
3. The renewal of aerial assassinations of high-ranking terrorists as well as Palestinians responsible for firing Qassam rockets and arms smuggling.
4. Developing improved technology for detecting and destroying tunnels employed for arms smuggling.
5. Reinforcing intelligence capabilities.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did not approve the IDF`s proposals. He only agreed to authorize a small expansion of the area within the Strip in which the IDF is allowed to operate. In addition, Olmert will convene the Security Cabinet next week for a hearing concerning the amassing of military power by the Palestinian organizations in Gaza, and the IDF`s plans to counter it.
Political sources said the discussion was necessary because the cabinet might be asked to authorize action in Gaza `at any given moment.` For that purpose, the sources said, the ministers must be briefed in advance on the material.
Yet senior officials in the defense establishment believe that extensive action in the Gaza Strip is unavoidable. Such action would mean many casualties to the IDF. To minimize casualties, the IDF will employ heavy fire that usually results in local civilian casualties as well, especially in the heavily populated area of the Strip.
The U.S. Administration is hoping that the actions of Palestinian security forces loyal to PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to foil terrorist activity could help avoid this scenario. The Americans are therefore very satisfied by Saturday`s successful uncovering of a tunnel near Rafah by Abbas` forces.
In the diplomatic arena, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni will head to Cairo Thursday to meet with Egyptian and Jordanian leaders, who are interested in `marketing` the Arab peace initiative to Israel. During her visit, Livni is expected to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Meanwhile, Israel is continuing to mount aerial strikes against Palestinians suspected of firing rockets into Israel. Following Monday`s rocket attack on Sderot, which achieved a direct hit on a Sderot house, an Israeli aircraft fired on a truck in the northern Gaza Strip. The IDF suspected the truck was used for firing rockets into Israel. One Palestinian was moderately wounded in the incident.
According to an IDF spokesman, the truck was carrying militants, probably belonging to an Islamic Jihad rocket-firing squad, who were on their way to fire Qassam rockets at the western Negev.
Islamic Jihad, which has carried out numerous rocket attacks against Israel from the northern Gaza Strip, confirmed that the militants were en route to a launch site when the car was targeted. Palestinian sources said that two militants were sitting in the car and managed to escape. The sources said the wounded man was a bystander.
In parallel, the Palestinian media dealt at length with Sunday`s intra-Palestinian clashes in Rafah, saying they stemmed from a struggle between religious and secular forces. The clash resulted in the death of a bodyguard of a local Fatah leader and the wounding of eight other people.
The incident occurred after militants opened fire at a sports day celebration at an elementary school operated by the United Nations in the southern Gaza Strip. Before the incident, Islamic Salafiun religious activists visited the primary school, warning authorities not to hold the event, saying that it `taught children immoral values.