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Israel grants army approval to widen its ground operations

Israel's army received approval Monday to broaden its ground operations against Gaza Strip militants who have been barraging Israeli border towns with deadly rocket fire, military officials said.

The military - which has been primarily relying on intensified airstrikes in the past two weeks - will be able to increase the number of forces it sends into Gaza to carry out pinpointed raids, the officials said. But no widespread campaign is expected at this time, they added.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss policy with the press.

The authorization by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and military chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi came just a day after Olmert said he would let the army do whatever necessary to halt the rocket fire.

Olmert cautioned, however, that there was no quick solution to the crude rockets the Palestinians are firing.On Sunday, the second Israeli was killed in a week in an attack on the southern town of Sderot, a frequent target.

Gaza militants fired three rockets that landed in southern Israel early Monday. Preliminary reports spoke of one person slightly injured, the military said.

Israel's airstrike campaign entered the 12th day Monday as the rocket fire persisted. Israel's operation has killed about 50 Palestinians, most of them militants.

Israeli aircraft on Sunday night hit what the military said were Hamas facilities to the north and south of Gaza City. Palestinian officials said there were no reports of casualties.

Olmert told Israelis on Sunday to be ready for a drawn-out conflict.

"We need to be prepared for dealing with this in the long term," Olmert warned his Cabinet. He said Israel's campaign against the attacks would not be limited in time, nor would the country yield to outside pressure.

"There will be no limit in acting against the terror groups and against those who are responsible for the terror. No one is immune," Olmert said.

In the private Cabinet session, Olmert seemed cool to efforts by Egypt and moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate a new cease-fire, according to a participant who spoke on condition of anonymity according to civil service rules.

Olmert acknowledged there was no immediate military answer to the crude Qassam rockets, which have long baffled Israel's high-tech army. "We don't want to create unrealistic expectations that it's possible to stop the Qassams totally," he said.

Past large-scale offensives have failed to quell the rocket fire.

The participant in the Cabinet session said ministers did not discuss targeting Hamas' political leaders or launching a large-scale ground operation in Gaza.

Israeli airstrikes appear to have hit Hamas hard - knocking out key bases, killing several top militants and forcing the movement's leadership underground. Israel has so far avoided attacks on Hamas leaders - a tactic it used in the past. Hamas is now the senior partner in the Palestinian coalition government.

Israeli missiles have hit near the homes of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and lawmaker Khalil al-Haya, both of Hamas, but the army has said the men were not targets.

Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin would not say if Hamas' top political leaders were now targets, but said Israel would strike those involved in the attacks as well as anyone who smuggles weapons or money used for the attacks.

"If their leadership is directly involved in terror, their leadership is not immune," she said.

Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, warned Israel not to target the movement's leaders. "Whoever thinks that harming the Hamas leadership can dissipate the movement is a fool," he said.

The violence comes as Israel's Labor Party opened its leadership race Monday. The outcome could impact the stability of Olmert's government and the embattled prime minister's future.

The centrist party is the largest of three junior partners in the ruling coalition with Olmert's Kadima Party. But both front-runners in Monday's race have said they would work to topple the prime minister.

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