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Israeli army proposes plan to set up "buffer zone" in Gaza Strip

Israel's army has developed a plan to create a "buffer zone" inside the edge of the Gaza Strip to halt the latest wave of Palestinian rocket attacks, military officials said Tuesday.

Such Israeli action would likely torpedo a six-month truce in the Gaza Strip and could threaten U.S. efforts to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

In a setback to those efforts, the State Department announced Monday that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled an upcoming visit to the region, citing the uncertain political situation after an Israeli commission found Olmert's government mishandled last year's war in Lebanon.

The Gaza cease-fire has sharply reduced fighting, but militants have continued to fire homemade rockets into southern Israel. The rocket fire has spiked in recent days, including two more projectiles launched Tuesday. No injuries were reported in Tuesday's attack, the army said.

On Monday, Israel carried out a rare airstrike in Gaza, attacking a car carrying rockets near the Israeli border, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned he was losing patience with the rocket barrages.

The military's plan for a 300-meter-deep (yard) zone inside Gaza is one of several options Israel is considering to counter the rocket fire, the military officials said on condition of anonymity since they were not allowed to discuss the plan with the media.

Ghazi Hamad, spokesman for Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, called the proposal a "dangerous idea."

"It will cause more confrontations. It won't provide stability," he said.

Military commanders have presented the plan to Olmert's Cabinet but it has not yet been approved, the officials said. The plan will be debated by senior Cabinet ministers next week, Haaretz reported Tuesday.

Israel periodically carries out "pinpoint" operations on the edges of Gaza to halt rocket launchings. The military's plan calls for a greater presence that would be constant in some places, the officials said.

The plan also calls for an increase in attacks on rocket launchers, including airstrikes on high-ranking militants who oversee the firings, the officials said. Olmert has already agreed to slightly expand the area in the Gaza Strip in which the army can operate, Haaretz said.

Israel has grown increasingly concerned by arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip and the rocket fire. Senior military officials have been pushing for approval of a large land offensive in the Gaza Strip to stop the rocket fire, but other security chiefs are opposed to such a complicated operation in the densely-populated coastal area that could exact many Israeli troop casualties.

Similar operations since Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 have failed to halt the rocket fire.

According to the army, 16 rockets have been fired at Israel since Friday. The attacks have strained the November cease-fire, which was meant to bring an end to rocket attacks and Israeli airstrikes. Militants from Hamas, the Islamic militant group that is part of the Palestinian government, have become involved in the attacks in recent weeks.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah party sits in the government with Hamas, has repeatedly condemned the rocket attacks, but has been unable to halt them. Ending the rocket fire is a key component of a new U.S. proposal for easing Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement while also improving Israeli security.

It's unclear whether Olmert could make any progress on the Palestinian track, since a scathing report last week by an official government commission criticized him for "very severe failures" during last year's war in Lebanon. The rebuke has badly weakened the prime minister and caused divisions within the government.

In Washington, officials said Rice had canceled a planned trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories because of the uncertain state of affairs. Israeli media said officials were surprised by Rice's cancellation. Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, did not have an immediate response to the reports.

Rice has been a frequent visitor in the region in recent months, urging the sides to restart peace efforts. Olmert and Abbas have held several meetings recently, and Haaretz said Tuesday they had opened a secret negotiation channel.

The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, called the report "baseless. There is no such thing."

Eisin would not comment directly on the report, but noted that Olmert and Abbas have held several public meetings in recent months.

Abbas and Olmert agreed to form teams that would meet to discuss issues relating to a future state, said a senior Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized the subject with reporters. The teams haven't met yet because they haven't agreed on an agenda, he said.

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