The political-security cabinet decided yesterday to give Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) a few days to take action to stop the firing of Qassam rockets and mortars from the Gaza Strip. At the same time, the ministers approved in principle a military operation to take control of the areas in the northern Strip from which the firing has been taking place, in the event that the PA fails to take action and the attacks on Israeli communities continue.

The political-security cabinet also authorized in principle a military operation in Lebanon, in the event that Hezbollah continues its attempted attacks along the northern border. The ministers were told that if need be, the Israel Defense Forces would carry out pin-point offensives in Lebanon, in a controlled manner so as to prevent a regional escalation. No specific targets were mentioned in the meeting.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said that Hezbollah was trying to undermine any move that could lead to an easing of tensions between Israel and the Palestinians. Hezbollah's actions, Mofaz said, were being backed by Syria and Iran.

In its decision to afford Abu Mazen time to rein in the terror groups, the cabinet said that "the State of Israel is following the implementation of the steps against terror that the Palestinian Authority has announced."

A decision on whether to carry out an operation, what exact form it will take and its timing was placed in the hands of the inner cabinet, comprising Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Mofaz, Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

Yesterday's cabinet meeting was the first that included the new Labor ministers. According to participants, no disputes arose, and all the ministers accepted the line of action presented by Sharon and the heads of the defense establishment.

"We will have to find the point of balance between the supreme need to provide security to the citizens of the state and the desire to afford Abu Mazen the opportunity to begin a new age of dialogue and an end to the terror," Mofaz said at the meeting.

"We won't tolerate the firing of the Qassams any longer, and if they don't act, we will," said Sharon.

Yesterday's meeting did witness a dispute between the head of Military Intelligence, Major General Aharon Farkash, and Shin Bet security service chief Avi Dichter. Both concurred that Abu Mazen was serious in his intentions to work toward stopping the rocket and mortar attacks, and was making a real effort to restore calm. Dichter, however, noted that the quiet over the coming days could be the result of the Muslim festival of Id al-Adha.

Farkash said Hamas wanted to undermine Israel's disengagement plan, and if it was unable to do so, it would work toward causing the pullout to take place under fire. Dichter, for his part, said Hamas's objective was to see the pullout take place under fire but not to sabotage it completely.

Newly appointed Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz asked the ministers to grant Sderot and other regional authorities close to Gaza "front-line community" status. Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the director general of the Prime Minister's Office, Ilan Cohen, opposed the suggestion.