Israel decides to push on with Gaza op until 'all goals reached'
Israel rejects proposal for 48-hour cease-fire, allows aid transfer; Hamas says willing to mull truce offers.
Israel decided on Wednesday to continue its offensive on the Hamas infrastructure in the Gaza Strip, according to the original plan of the defense establishment.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told cabinet ministers, who reached their decision following a presentation by defense officials, that Israel would not conclude its operation until all of its goals had been reached.]
"We did not begin the Gaza operation in order to finish it with rocket fire continuing like it did before," Olmert said. "Israel has restrained for years and given plenty of chances for a calm."
"We knew what the price would be to enable people living in the Negev to recuperate and to live for some time without concern," the prime minister added. "But Hamas breached the calm."
Israel earlier Wednesday rejected a French proposal for a 48-hour cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, which would have allowed a freer flow of humanitarian aid into the bombarded coastal territory.
The decision was reached by the members of the "kitchen cabinet," which includes Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
Hamas said it was prepared to study proposals for a cease-fire, as long as Israel lifted the economic blockade on Gaza.
"We are for any initiative that will bring an immediate cessation to the aggression and lift the siege entirely," Hamas official Ayman Taha said.
Meanwhile, Israel decided to open the Kerem Shalom crossing to the Gaza Strip on Wednesday afternoon to allow 106 trucks filled with humanitarian aid supplied by foreign aid groups to enter the coastal territory.
Some 100 trucks carrying basic food and medical supplies entered Gaza on Tuesday through the same crossing. The supplies were donated by Jordan, Turkey and international organizations. Five ambulances were also permitted to enter.
Israel has promised Red Cross and United Nations relief organizations that it would assist the transfer of humanitarian aid as necessary.
In Jerusalem on Wednesday, the cabinet discussed the French proposal for a 48-hour "humanitarian" cease-fire, after failing late Tuesday night to reach a decision. The cabinet is also reportedly discussing whether to expand the Israel Defense Forces operation in the Gaza Strip.
During the meeting, ministers approved the mobilization of 2,500 army reservists, expanding on an earlier call-up of 6,500 soldiers for the garrison on the Gaza border, officials said.
Earlier on Wednesday, Israel described the French proposal for a humanitarian truce as unrealistic.
"That proposal contained no guarantees of any kind that Hamas will stop the rockets and smuggling," Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said. "It is not realistic to expect Israel to cease fire unilaterally with no mechanism to enforce the cessation of shooting and terror from Hamas."
But Palmor said Israel had not rejected the proposal, one of several under consideration, outright. Another Israeli official said France might propose amendments to its plan.
French newspaper: Sarkozy to visit Israel next week
French President Nicolas Sarkozy will travel to Israel and the West Bank early next week, extending an already-planned trip to Lebanon, a French newspaper said on Wednesday.
Le Parisien, citing an unidentified presidential official, said on its website Sarkozy might also visit Egypt and Syria.
Sarkozy's office declined to comment on the report.
The French president is due to make a long-planned visit to Lebanon on January 6, but a member of his staff indicated earlier this week that he was considering travelling to other countries in the region following the Israeli air strikes on Gaza.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is scheduled to meet Sarkozy in Paris on Thursday.
Le Parisien said Sarkozy would meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli leaders on Monday and Tuesday. He was also considering seeing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Meanwhile, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner chaired an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers in Paris on Tuesday over the Gaza fighting. The 27 EU nations urged Israel and Hamas to accept an immediate and permanent cease-fire. France holds the EU presidency until midnight.
Speaking on RTL radio Wednesday, Kouchner said he hoped Israel does not launch a ground operation in Gaza. A humanitarian truce is "not enough and any cease-fire must be lasting," he added.
'No such thing as a humanitarian cease-fire
The Cabinet met on Tuesday as well, following a day in which a Hamas rocket struck Be'er Sheva for the first time and the Israel Defense Forces completed preparations for a possible ground operation in the Gaza Strip. The Education Ministry decided to keep schools in Be'er Sheva closed on Wednesday.
In discussions with Olmert and Livni on Tuesday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak recommended seeking an exit from the fighting within the next few days, using one of the various international initiatives currently being worked on.
Barak also favors the French proposal for a 48-hour truce that would be used to examine Hamas' willingness to agree to a long-term cease-fire, in addition to its stated purpose of providing humanitarian assistance to Gaza's population.
Olmert and Livni are said to be less enthusiastic about the French proposal.
"There's no such thing as a 'humanitarian cease-fire'," an Olmert aide said Tuesday. "Gaza is not undergoing a humanitarian crisis. We're constantly supplying it with food and medications, and there's no need for a humanitarian cease-fire."
When Olmert visited IDF Southern Command headquarters in Be'er Sheva Tuesday, most of the senior officers with whom he met urged him to authorize a ground operation. People at the meeting said their impression was that Olmert agreed.
Moreover, even a temporary cease-fire is liable to take some time to arrange, and during this time, ongoing fire and further casualties could spark renewed escalation.
IDF troops have been massed along the Gaza border awaiting a ground operation for two days already, exposing them to rocket and mortar fire. And on Monday, a mortar shell killed a soldier at the Nahal Oz base.
In addition, the bad weather provides cover for Hamas rocket-launching crews, because it is hard for Israeli aircraft to spot them through the clouds.
The air force and navy bombed dozens of targets in Gaza, including smuggling tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border, and 40 Palestinians were killed, including at least five civilians. In addition, Barak sought cabinet approval for calling up another 2,510 reservists, on top of the 6,700 called up on Sunday.
The Prime Minister's Office and defense officials also worked on finalizing Israel's terms for a permanent cease-fire. These include a complete cessation of all rocket and mortar fire from Gaza by all Palestinian organizations; a ban on armed men approaching the border fence with Israel, since there were several incidents near the fence during the six-month truce that collapsed this month; complete Israeli control over the Gaza border crossings; Egyptian efforts to stop the weapons smuggling into Gaza from the Sinai Peninsula; and some kind of supervisory mechanism to ensure that Hamas is meeting its commitments.
A cease-fire will not be conditioned on the return of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, but Israel hopes a truce deal would increase the chances of concluding a prisoner exchange with Hamas.
International efforts for truce gather steam
International efforts to broker a cease-fire gathered steam Tuesday as well. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned her counterparts around the world, including a conference call with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
In addition, Turkey, France and the UN all urged Syrian President Bashar Assad to use his influence to get Khaled Meshal, the Damascus-based head of Hamas' political bureau, to agree to a truce. So far, Assad has refused, saying Israel must first halt its operation in Gaza.
But Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan flew to Damascus Wednesday to continue this effort, along with Qatari Prime Minister Hamad al-Thani, with whom Erdogan met in Ankara Tuesday. Erdogan will then proceed to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Later Wednesday, Arab League foreign ministers will meet in Cairo to discuss the situation in Gaza.