Military says it is cutting back arrest raids to help shore up truce

Monday, December 4th 2006, 6:15 am
By: News On 6

JERUSALEM (AP) _ In an effort to shore up a shaky truce in the Gaza Strip, Israeli military officials said Monday that they are reducing their operations in the West Bank and had made it more difficult for field commanders to order arrest raids there.

Although the cease-fire agreement does not yet include the West Bank, Gaza militants have bristled in recent days at the army's continuing arrests of militants there and threatened a wave of reprisal attacks.

Senior military officials said Monday that they had decided to reduce the number of operations in the West Bank in light of government efforts to expand the truce. Now, only regional or division commanders can order the raids, instead of the lower-ranking brigade commanders, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Despite the decision, the army arrested 15 militants across the West Bank between Sunday night and Monday morning, the army said.

Both Islamic Jihad and Hamas said Sunday that Israel's continuing military operations in the West Bank were undermining the truce and could lead to retaliations.

The 8-day-old truce ended five months of intense fighting between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza and sparked hopes that it could lead to a renewal of long-stalled peace talks. Since it took effect, Gaza militants have launched 15 rockets into Israel _ down considerably from the number of pre-truce attacks _ causing no damage.

The Israeli government has said it would react with restraint to the continuing attacks, but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday that he was running out of patience.

Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh told Israel's Army Radio on Monday that the government had no intention of violating the cease-fire, but the military was pushing for the authority to attack militants who were about to launch rockets into Israel.

``The order is that we are forbidden to open fire,'' Sneh said. ``We (in the Defense Ministry) don't agree with that.''

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who has been working to expand the truce to the West Bank, said Israel assured the Palestinians it would not walk away from the agreement.

``The Israelis informed us they will continue giving it a chance,'' he said. ``As far as the West Bank is concerned, once it (the truce) is full and comprehensive in Gaza, they will start considering it in the West Bank, provided that we will be able to guarantee that there will be no suicide bombers.''

Israeli officials have expressed concern that Gaza militants are using the truce to rearm with weapons smuggled through tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border, and several analysts predicted that Israel might have to launch an all-out offensive in Gaza to try to crush the militants.

``We have to realize that soon the (army) will enter the Gaza Strip with great force. It won't be simple. It will cost a fair number of casualties,'' Ben Caspit wrote in the Maariv daily.