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Israel Swears in Moshe Ya'alon as Chief of Staff - 2002-07-09

Israel has sworn in a new head of the country's defense forces, Moshe Ya'alon. Israel's new chief of staff now has the job of maintaining the nation's security during an ongoing conflict with Palestinians that shows little sign of a diplomatic breakthrough to end the fighting.

Moshe Ya'alon has a reputation as a thinker and a planner. But he also is a tough-minded general who has signaled his readiness to widen the Israeli army's operations against Palestinians.

Even before taking his new job, General Ya'alon said he is prepared to send forces in large numbers into the Gaza Strip as well as the West Bank. During a visit to Washington last month, he told U.S. officials it is inevitable that the Israeli army will have to conduct a major offensive into the Gaza Strip, if any terrorist attacks are launched from there.

Israel has launched two such operations inside the West Bank this year. The latest is still under way and has involved the extended re-occupation of seven Palestinian self-rule towns.

But Gaza has not seen a major assault by ground troops, although the territory is home to prominent leaders of militant Islamic groups that have carried out a campaign of suicide bombings. It is believed that General Ya'alon will try to convince Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's cabinet that such an operation may be necessary in the near future. Mr. Sharon has so far resisted taking the step, fearing it could strain Israel's relations with the United States, which wants to limit the territorial extent of the conflict.

Another sign of Israel's preparedness for a long conflict was underlined this week by the army's decision to bolster security at Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The army plans to erect electronic surveillance fences around these communities. The fencing is in addition to the general barrier being built around the West Bank in an effort to provide a buffer between the territory and Israel.

The new Israeli military chief, General Ya'alon, joined the army in 1968 and served as a paratrooper before rising up the ranks to become head of military intelligence and deputy chief of staff. He was sworn in as the new head of Israel's armed forces in ceremonies Tuesday in Prime Minister Sharon's office.