Speculation about next phase of offensive as more troops deploy

Israel eased its overnight strikes on the Gaza Strip while reserve units moved into the Palestinian territory. While the military prepared for a possible invasion of dense urban areas, international talks resumed in Cairo on Monday.


Also read: 'Blair says framework ceasefire in place'



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Israel kept pounding Hamas targets and sending troops into the Gaza Strip on Monday as its offensive in the Palestinian territory entered its 17th day.

FRANCE 24 correspondents reported on overnight shelling and air raids, albeit of lighter intensity than on previous nights. “The aviation and artillery have concentrated their fire on the south of the Gaza Strip, around Rafah,” said FRANCE 24 special correspondent Lucas Menget on the Gaza-Israeli border.

According to the Israeli military, the border city of Rafah hides tunnels through which Hamas militants smuggle in weapons from neighbouring Egypt.

Gaza city, too, experienced nightly shelling and bombing that took its toll on the overcrowded territory’s exhausted population. “Dawn gives ambulance crews a little security and they try to search places they could not access before,” said FRANCE 24’s Gaza correspondent Radjaa Abou Dagga Monday morning. “At night, it is too dangerous. But from 8 am you can go and see what happened.”

Abou Dagga had confirmed reports of at least five overnight deaths in Gaza city. Two of the bodies were found near a Hamas-run social centre. “Those organisations are in the heavily built-up and populated neighbourhoods. There is always damage because F-16 planes drop very heavy bombs on them,” he said.

Since the start of Israel's Operation Cast Lead on December 27, at least 900 Palestinians have been killed, including 275 children, and another 3,800 wounded, according to Gaza medics.

Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians died in combat or in rocket attacks since the operation began. Palestinian militants have fired nearly 700 rockets into Israel.

Diplomatic efforts in Cairo

Israel sent more troops, including reservists, into the Gaza strip, fuelling speculation about a “third phase” in the assault. This would entail an invasion of heavily built-up and populated areas, including the centre of Gaza city, to hunt down armed militants.

The decrease in raids overnight was interpreted by Lucas Menget as proof that the military could be leaving room for ground troops to deploy.

However, FRANCE 24’s Jerusalem correspondent Marc de Chalvron noted that the Israeli security cabinet was divided. Our other correspondent in Jerusalem, Annette Young, remarked that Israeli forces had so far remained on the outskirts of Gaza City. “At this stage, they are trying to give time for diplomatic efforts in Cairo to see if there is any breakthrough,” she added.

Tony Blair, the envoy for the Middle East Quartet (European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States), entered talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak there Monday morning.

He told journalists that the framework of a ceasefire agreement was in place and that talks were “at a sensitive stage” and focused on anti-smuggling measures.

“The Hamas delegation knows that Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Israel and many parties involved in the discussions want Hamas to accept the deployment of soldiers along the border between Gaza and Egypt,” said FRANCE 24’s correspondent Ygal Saadoun from Cairo.

Senior Israeli defence official Amos Gilad, who already discussed border patrolling issues with Egyptian negotiators on Friday, announced on Monday that he would delay his next trip to Cairo until Tuesday. Israeli radio said Gilad's visit, originally planned for Monday, had been postponed by the Israeli leadership as a way to put pressure on Hamas.

A Hamas delegation is also in Cairo to discuss an Egyptian truce plan. Khaled Meshaal, the leader of the Palestinian group, warned on Saturday that Hamas would not consider a ceasefire until Israel stops its offensive and ends the blockade of the Gaza Strip.

However, Annette Young reported: “We’re hearing from Israeli intelligence that there are appearing to be cracks within the Hamas leadership – between those who are under fire in Gaza and the exile political leadership in Damascus”, where Meshaal is based. She stressed that "it is impossible to verify these claims as the Hamas leadership in Gaza is in hiding".

Offensive entering “Phase 2.5”

The Israeli government sent mixed signals throughout the weekend. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told a cabinet meeting on Sunday the operation was near achieving its aim to “change the security situation in the south”, a reference to the Hamas rockets threat. “Israel is approaching these goals, but more patience and determination are required”, he said.

Later, Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilna told Israeli radio: “It would seem that we are close to ending the ground operation and ending the operation altogether.” However, Housing Minister Zeev Boim told FRANCE 24: “We have to enlarge the military operation in Gaza against Hamas and the terrorist infrastructure.”

Defence Minister Ehud Barak insisted Israel would maintain pressure on Hamas while keeping diplomatic channels open. Israeli analysts have described the current strategy, which translates as fresh troop deployments without a so-called “Phase 3” full-scale invasion, as “Phase 2.5”.

Both sides know that the diplomatic scene will change with the inauguration of US President-elect Barack Obama on Jan. 20. In a television interview on Sunday, Obama said he would get involved in the region as soon as he takes office.

“What I am doing right now is putting together the team so that on January 20th, starting on day one, we have the best possible people who are going to be immediately engaged in the Middle East peace process as a whole,” he said.

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