Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has met with Israel's defence and foreign ministers to weigh a possible military offensive against Hamas militants in Gaza.
Three Hamas gunmen were killed by Israeli troops in Gaza on Tuesday as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was set to meet top ministers to weigh up a possible military offensive on the territory in a bid to stop militant rocket fire.
The meeting comes after the family of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held at a secret location by Gaza militants, received a letter from their son who was captured in a deadly cross-border raid two years ago.
Israel's political and military leaders have for months been mulling a wider military blitz in the besieged coastal strip aimed at ousting its Islamist rulers Hamas and halting near-daily rocket attacks on Israel.
On Tuesday, Israeli troops killed three Hamas fighters in Gaza City and wounded five more people, Palestinian medics said.
"Within the last hour 17 mortars were launched toward Israel from eastern Gaza. The IDF (Israel Defence Forces) targeted the launching squad twice and identified hitting it," an Israeli military spokesman told AFP.
Olmert, whose political future is clouded by a scandal over corruption allegations, will hold talks with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defence Minister Ehud Barak before convening the security cabinet on Wednesday.
"The current situation cannot last. The prime minister will discuss the various options available, including the use of force," government spokesman Mark Regev told AFP.
He said a decision was possible after the security cabinet meeting.
"There is no doubt that an offensive in Gaza is inevitable but the timing is the question," a senior defence official told AFP. "An operation now could jeopordise efforts to bring about the release of Gilad Shalit and strain Israel's ties with Egypt."
Since Hamas seized power in Gaza nearly a year ago, Israel has sealed the impoverished territory off from all but limited humanitarian aid and launched regular air strikes and limited ground incursions.
On Monday, a foundation run by former US president Jimmy Carter passed on a letter from Shalit to his family, following an agreement in April between Carter and exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Damascus.
It was the first evidence that Shalit remains alive since a recording released last June in which the soldier said his health was deteriorating and called on Israel to make greater efforts to free him.
In the latest letter Shalit writes: "I'm doing badly, save me, don't abandon me -- I want to come home quickly," according to Israel's Yediot Aharonot newspaper.
Hamas has always insisted Shalit is alive and being treated well, and blames Israel for the failure to reach an agreement for his release in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.
But senior defence ministry official Amos Gilad told army radio there was no link between the letter and any eventual military operation.
Israeli leaders have demanded information on Shalit's well-being as a condition for its acceptance of an Egyptian-brokered Gaza truce proposal agreed to by several Palestinian factions, including Hamas.
The truce talks have dragged on for months, with Israel demanding assurances that militants will not use any period of calm to smuggle weapons under the Gaza-Egypt border.
"We must set the strategic goal against Hamas in Gaza: destruction of their military capability to wage a war of attrition against the south of the country," Public Security Minister Avi Dichter said at a cabinet meeting.
"We mustn't fall in love with the idea of a truce but remain focused on the end goal," he added, according to a statement from his office.
Hamas has demanded that Israel ease the blockade and allow the opening of border crossings, particularly the Rafah crossing with Egypt -- the only one that bypasses Israel.
Hamas also insists that any negotiations on a prisoner exchange be kept separate from truce talks.
At least 495 people, almost all of them Palestinians and most of them members of armed groups, have been killed since Israeli-Palestinian peace talks were relaunched in November, according to an AFP tally.
Date created : 2008-06-10