OCCUPIED JERUSALEM – Israel’s Security Cabinet on Wednesday backed 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 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 Israeli Prime Minister 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.
The decision by top ministers in Olmert’s government to hold off militarily followed Hamas’s release this week of a hand-written letter by Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Gaza militants two years ago.
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 rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip and Israeli incursions. Hamas demands Israel ease its Gaza blockade.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has backed the Egyptian mediating 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 bitter disputes over Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank, 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 peace talks which the United States hopes can achieve a framework deal this year on Palestinian statehood.
The decision appeared to run counter to saber-rattling by Olmert and other cabinet ministers, who said last week that a major military operation in the Gaza Strip was looking more likely than ever.
"At this moment, the pendulum is swinging closer to military action in Gaza than anything else," Olmert said on Friday after returning from a three-day trip to the United States where he met President George W. Bush.
Speaking before the Security Cabinet decision, Olmert’s deputy, Vice Premier Haim Ramon, said a broad military operation in the Gaza Strip was the only way to end Hamas’s reign.
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.
Israel refuses to negotiate directly with Hamas, which has spurned Western demands to recognize the Jewish state and end violence.
Olmert has faced mounting pressure at home to launch a large-scale military operation to stop Palestinian rocket attacks that have caused several deaths in recent months and disrupted daily life in parts of southern Israel.
In the latest violence in the Gaza Strip, Israeli forces killed a 9-year-old Palestinian girl, a militant and a civilian, Palestinian medical workers and Hamas said.