JERUSALEM, June 11 (Reuters) - Israel said on Wednesday it
would support efforts by Egypt to reach a truce in the Gaza
Strip but instructed the army to prepare for possible military
action in the Hamas-controlled territory if mediation failed.
The decision by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Security
Cabinet to hold off militarily for now followed Hamas's release
this week of a hand-written letter by Gilad Shalit, an Israeli
soldier captured by Gaza militants two years ago.
But it came against a backdrop of escalating violence in
which Israeli forces on Wednesday killed four Palestinians in
the coastal enclave, including a 9-year-old girl.
Israel has been pressing for progress on the Shalit case and
an end to Hamas weapons smuggling as conditions for a truce that
would aim to stop Gaza rocket attacks and Israeli incursions.
Hamas, which has demanded Israel ease its Gaza blockade in
return for calm, said the Security Cabinet decision was "not
serious" because of Israel's threat of a large-scale operation
if its conditions were not met and truce talks collapsed.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has backed the
Egyptian mediation effort, plans to return to the region this
weekend to try to spur peace talks between Olmert and
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Those talks have been marred by disputes over Jewish
settlement building, violence in the Gaza Strip and a corruption
scandal that threatens to force Olmert from office.
Abbas had cautioned against any Gaza incursion, saying such
violence could doom Palestinian statehood talks which the United
States hopes can achieve a framework deal this year.
Speaking to reporters ahead of Rice's visit, the head of
Abbas's government, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, said he
believed it would be impossible to reach a peace deal in 2008.
"I have a strong feeling that is tantamount to certainty that
a solution won't be achieved this year," Fayyad told reporters.
"The Security Cabinet decided this morning to support
Egyptian efforts to achieve calm in the south and to end the
daily targeting of Israeli civilians by the terrorists in Gaza,"
said Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev.
"In parallel, the Security Cabinet has instructed the
military to continue its preparations in the unfortunate event
that the Egyptian track should prove unsuccessful," he added,
alluding to a possible broad military operation in Gaza.
A Security Cabinet statement said Defence Minister Ehud
Barak would oversee talks with Egypt while the army makes "quick
preparations" for military action if ordered.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the group was prepared
for either outcome -- full calm or a confrontation.
"They are preparing for a large-scale attack on Gaza and
that makes any talk about giving calm a chance unserious and
unreal," he said.
The Security Cabinet's decision appeared at odds with
sabre-rattling by Olmert and other cabinet ministers.
Speaking before the decision, Olmert's deputy, Vice Premier
Haim Ramon, said a broad operation in the Gaza Strip was the
only way to end Hamas's reign.
After talks last week in Washington, Olmert said "the
pendulum is swinging closer to military action in Gaza than
Egypt has been trying for months to broker a truce between
Israel and Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip from Abbas's
secular Fatah faction a year ago.
Olmert refuses to negotiate directly with Hamas, which has
spurned Western demands to recognise Israel and end violence.
Olmert has faced mounting pressure at home to invade the
Gaza Strip to stop Palestinian rocket attacks that have caused
several deaths in recent months and disrupted life in parts of
More than 360 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have died this
year in Israeli attacks, over a third of them civilians,
according to Israeli rights group B'Tselem.
(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Wafa Amr
in Ramallah; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Keith Weir)