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Israel rules out Gaza invasion now to seek truce
An Israeli soldier escorts Palestinians detained and brought from the Gaza Strip, after soldiers returned from operation in Gaza, near the Israel-Gaza border, southern Israel, Wednesday June 11, 2008. Israeli leaders have decided not to launch a broad invasion of the Gaza Strip, despite a new spike in fighting against Palestinian militants. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman says Israel wants to give Egyptian-brokered truce efforts more time to succeed. - photo by Associated Press
    JERUSALEM — Israeli leaders decided Wednesday against mounting a major attack on militants in the Gaza Strip, saying they would give Egypt more time to broker a truce with the territory’s Hamas rulers.
    But with bloodshed on both sides, including the death of a 6-year-old Gaza girl, the government said it would push ahead with preparations for a possible invasion and keep attacking Palestinian militants to try to stop daily rocket and mortar barrages on southern Israel.
    Israeli aircraft fired a missile at militants in northern Gaza, but it hit a house instead, killing 6-year-old Hadeel al-Smari in the backyard, according to an Associated Press Television News crew that saw her body.
    Israel’s military said its forces identified hitting the rocket squad and it was unaware of any civilian casualties. It blamed the militants for setting up rocket launchers in crowded neighborhoods.
    In other violence, a 55-year-old Palestinian civilian and two militants were killed in clashes with Israeli troops during a brief incursion in southern Gaza, and two Israeli civilians were wounded by mortar shells fired from Gaza that hit a paint factory where an Israeli was killed by a shell last week.
    A relative of the dead girl said Palestinian civilians are affected harshly by Israeli attacks. ‘‘Our lives are hell. We cannot sleep or enjoy peace in our houses because of the army fire,’’ Ahmad al-Smari said by telephone from the hospital in the Gaza town of Khan Younis.
    In parallel, Israelis who live near Gaza are clamoring for their government to take action to stop militant barrages that disrupt lives and cause casualties.
    But Israel’s Security Cabinet, made up of senior ministers, deflected pressure to order the army into Gaza immediately. Instead, it authorized Defense Minister Ehud Barak to ‘‘exhaust the dialogue with Egypt in order to achieve all of Israel’s conditions for an actual calm.’’
    At the same time, however, the Security Cabinet instructed commanders ‘‘to prepare for military action in the Gaza Strip, according to a rapid timetable, should the Cabinet convene and make a decision to this effect,’’ according to a government statement.
    The order added that progress toward releasing an Israeli soldier who has been held by Hamas for two years must be part of a cease-fire deal.
    There was no immediate Egyptian comment on the Israeli decision.
    Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri accused Israel of double-talk. ‘‘The government wants to maneuver and blackmail the Palestinian factions while continuing its daily aggression,’’ Abu Zuhri said.
    Israeli Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad was expected to travel to Cairo on Thursday to try to wrap up a truce, according to defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the contacts are secret.
    Egypt has been trying to broker a truce for months, mediating between Hamas and Israel, which do not deal directly with each other. Hamas demands a truce include an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza imposed after Hamas violently seized control of the territory a year ago.
    Although there is considerable public support for a large-scale invasion of Gaza, the main problem facing Israeli policymakers is that no previous offensive succeeded in stopping militant attacks for long. Even when significant numbers of soldiers entered Gaza, inflicting dozens of casualties amid severe international criticism, rocket fire resumed when the troops left.
    An even wider operation with the goal of trying to overthrow the Hamas regime would mean house-to-house fighting in one of the world’s most crowded and poverty-stricken territories, facing Islamic militants who have little to lose. That would virtually guarantee high casualties.
    Still, Israel is skeptical of a cease-fire, assuming Hamas would use any lull to rearm and regroup — particularly since the militants themselves say they would use a truce to prepare for more fighting. Hamas does not accept the presence of a Jewish state in an Islamic Middle East and has sent dozens of suicide bombers into Israel.
    Speaking before the Security Cabinet vote, Vice Premier Haim Ramon said there could be both a truce and an invasion.
    ‘‘Even those who support the calm say it would only last a month or two, and then Hamas will violate it,’’ Ramon told Army Radio. ‘‘Then we will launch the military operation. Everybody agrees that it is just a matter of when.’’

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