Amoss Harel
June 9, 2008 - 4:36pm

Despite stern warning from Israeli officials about an impending massive operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the big invasion is less certain and imminent than how it is painted in the media, according to defense and military sources.

The sources told Haaretz on Saturday that negotiations on a cease-fire will continue for the next two weeks with Hamas, barring Israeli casualties from Qassam rockets. Only after that period, the sources said, will the government formulate and decide on its next moves vis-a-vis the Islamist organization.

The death of a 51-year-old kibbutz member last week from a mortar shell has served to heighten the decision makers' sense of urgency in approving a land operation in the Strip, the sources added. Yet, they said, this sense of urgency has not yet been translated to operational or preparatory orders. The Israel Defense Forces, they said, has not reinforced its regular troops around the Gaza Strip, and no reserves troops have been called up. According to the sources, it is possible that the Israel Air Force, along with ground forces, will escalate their activity around the Strip with time. If that occurs, the sources expected the strikes to focus on the Strip's "buffer zone" - an area of two to three kilometers west of the fence that surrounds the Strip and separates it from Israel.

Meanwhile, according to various reports, Israel is going ahead with indirect dialogue with Hamas, through Egyptian mediation. These contacts are focused on a deal for the release of Gilad Shalit, an IDF soldier whom Hamas abducted two years ago from the Kerem Shalom military outpost outside the Gaza Strip.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak has been in favor, according to his associates, of achieving a cease-fire (tahadiyeh in Arabic) with Hamas. However, the defense establishment sources said that if talks fail to achieve this within the next 14 days, Barak may go for the military option. Over the weekend, both Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Barak were quoted as saying that the Gaza invasion was "very close," and "imminent."

Hamas: Israeli tank fire kills Gaza gunman, wounds another

Shells fired from an Israel Defense Forces tank killed a Palestinian gunman and wounded another east of Gaza City on Saturday, Hamas Islamists and local medical workers said.

Residents of the neighborhood of Shijaia, a Hamas stronghold, said a shell hit a house where the gunman was killed and another shell was aimed directly at a gunman who was critically wounded.

Hamas said the two men belonged to their organization.

An IDF spokesman said a ground force operating on the Israeli side of the border in the northern part of the Gaza Strip spotted an armed man trying to lay an explosive device near the fence and shot him.

Israel has tightened a blockade on the Gaza Strip and often conducts raids and air strikes into the territory which it says are aimed at ending frequent rocket and mortar fire at towns and agricultural communities close to the border.

On Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said a major military operation into the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip to counter the cross-border rocket fire was looking more likely.

"At this moment the pendulum is swinging closer to military action in Gaza than anything else," Olmert said after returning from a three-day trip to the United States where he met President George W. Bush.


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