Israel will enforce a new off-limits zone in the Gaza Strip with artillery, helicopter and gunboat fire in response to firing of homemade shells on Israeli towns, an Israeli defense official said on Friday.
If enforced, the aerial barrage would mark some of Israel’s toughest military action in Gaza since it withdrew from the coastal strip in September.
Increased helicopter fire will aim at keeping Palestinians from entering the ruins of three settlements in northern Gaza that are frequently used as launch sites for the Palestinian home made shells.
Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim said the no-go zone was part of Israel’s stepped up response to resistance fire. Israel has already launched missiles and artillery fire at suspected launching areas and killed several Palestinian resistance fighters in recent months.
Israel hopes the Palestinians “will get the message and that this will stop the rocket squads”, Boim told Israel Radio, “If we must, we will have to tighten the screw further”.
Boim ruled out a major ground offensive in Gaza, and added that he also acknowledged the homemade Qassam shells which are highly inaccurate; do not pose a strategic threat to Israel.
Boim told Army Radio on Friday that Israel might fire artillery shells toward populated areas of the Gaza Strip as opposed to open fields, as the army has been doing until now in response to Qassam fire.
“We need to tell the residents of Beit Hanoun, Beit Lahia, and the suburbs of Jabalia: ‘In 12 hours, artillery will land in the area, evacuate these areas”, he said. “I think one operation of this sort can solve the problem”.
The “no-go zone” will be 1.5 miles deep and run along the northern and eastern edges of Gaza, defense officials said. Gaza is about 25 miles long and six miles wide. The officials claim the areas are uninhabited, though they include Palestinian farmland.
Some Israeli security officials suggested on Friday that Israeli Forces should target civilian areas in the Gaza Strip as part of its attempt to halt Qassam fire.
Former Israeli chief of staff, Dan Shomron, dismissed potential complaints against collective punishment, saying Israel has no other choice.
“We must tell residents of the Strip that any area which is used by the resistance in firing homemade shells, will be directly targeted by the army”, Shomron told the Israeli radio on Friday, “We suggest that the residents get away from these places, because we will attack them”.
These comments came a day after Israel decided to step up its targeted killings of senior Islamic Jihad leaders in response to recent Palestinian resistance shelling of Israeli targets.
On Thursday Israeli army unleashed a massive artillery barrage in response to a Qassam fired earlier in the day and lightly injured four Israeli soldiers at an army base near the Gaza border.
However, an Israeli government source said that while Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was “wavering” over the idea during a meeting on Wednesday, senior military officials strongly opposed it, arguing that it constituted collective punishment and would be hard to justify.
Also, the Israeli Attorney General, Menachem Mazuz, opposes the idea.
As a result, it has been rejected for now, but will be discussed again if the escalation continues, the officials said.
However, Israeli military sources admitted that the current measures are unlikely to stop the Qassams completely, because Islamic Jihad, unlike Hamas, is not running in the elections and is therefore relatively immune to pressure from the Palestinian public.