Barak: Israel 'very close' to achieving goals in Gaza
Channel 10: IDF chief Ashkenazi in favor of ending three-week offensive in Gaza.
Prime Minster Ehud Olmert on Saturday night announced that Israel's security cabinet has voted in favor of a unilateral cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, which will come into effect at 2 A.M.
The announcement comes after three weeks of fighting in the coastal strip, as Israel launched a massive military offensive aimed at halting years of daily rocket fire on its southern communities. Palestinian sources say that more than 1,100 Gazans have been killed since the offensive began on December 27. Three Israeli civilians and 10 Israel Defense Forces have been killed during that period.
The decision to launch the cease-fire was approved during a lengthy security cabinet meeting which began after sundown in Tel Aviv. Two ministers were against the move, and another abstained.
"Our fight is not with the people of Gaza," Olmert said at the Tel Aviv press conference following the cabinet meeting. "We left Gaza in 2005 with the intention of never returning," he said, referring to Israel's unilateral withdrawal of troops and settlers from the territory under former prime minister Ariel Sharon.
Olmert warned that Iran, through its proxies Hezbollah and Hamas, was trying to establish its own hegemony in the region. He said that Hamas had underestimated Israel's decisiveness, had been "surprised" by the launch of the offensive, and was still not fully aware of how badly it had been damaged.
Olmert said that "if Hamas entirely ends its rocket fire on Israel, Israel will consider an IDF withdrawal from the Gaza Strip." If that did not occur, he said, "The IDF will continue to operate in order to protect our citizens."
Most rocket launching areas are now controlled by IDF, he said.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Saturday that Israel is very close to meeting the objectives of its 22-day-old offensive in Gaza.
"After three weeks of Operation Cast Lead, we are very close to reaching the goals and securing them through diplomatic agreements," Barak said during a visit to the south of the country, according to a statement from his office.
The security cabinet was to meet Saturday night to discuss a unilateral cease-fire in Gaza.
The decision would mean Israel putting an end to Operation Cast Lead without an agreement with Hamas, relying instead on the support of the United States and Egypt in battling arms smuggling into Gaza.
Israel's Channel 10 on Saturday quoted IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi as saying he is in favor of bringing the IDF Gaza operation to a close.
A government source emphasized that there has been great progress with Egypt in reaching an agreement on fighting arms smuggling. The deal would require the combined use of technological measures on the border between Gaza and Egypt, operations against smugglers in the southern Gaza town of Rafah and the use of international experts to identify smuggling tunnels on the border.
The deal would also call for cooperation between Israel and Egypt on matters relating to the Gaza Strip in which they have shared interests, without the interference of Hamas.
Egypt is at the moment considering whether to organize a summit in the near future in Cairo between Olmert, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Egypt's state-run news agency MENA reported on Saturday that Mubarak has invited French President Nicholas Sarzoky and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for talks on how to end the Gaza offensive.
The Middle East News Agency (MENA) reported that Abbas and Sarkozy are set to hold talks with Egyptian President Hosni Muabark on Sunday.
The United States and Israel signed an agreement on Friday aimed at stopping the smuggling of weapons into the Gaza Strip, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said.
The deal includes measures meant to fight arms smuggling from Iran to Gaza, with the policing to take place throughout the route by which the arms reach Gaza, including patrols of the Persian Gulf, Sudan and neighboring states.
The two-and-a-half page document outlines a framework under which the United States will provide military and intelligence assets, including detection and surveillance equipment, as well as logistical help and training to Israel, Egypt and other nations in the region. The equipment and training would be used for monitoring Gaza's land and sea borders.
The document also calls for the U.S. to expand work with its NATO partners in the effort, particularly in the Red Sea, Mediterranean Sea, Gulf of Aden, Indian Ocean and eastern Africa, according to a text.
It also commits Washington to use relevant components of the U.S. military to assist Mideast governments in preventing weapons and explosives flows to Gaza that originate in or transit their territories.
Although signed by the Bush administration, the agreement is binding on the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama and Rice and State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said both Obama and Secretary of State-designate Hillary Rodham Clinton had been briefed on the details.