Amos Harel, Avi Issacharoff, Barak Ravid, Yoav Stern
January 11, 2009 - 1:00am

The security cabinet decided Friday to continue Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, but not expand it at this stage. In the coming days Israel will focus its military and diplomatic efforts on pressuring Egypt to work toward the Israeli and international demand to deploy an international force to combat smuggling from Egypt to Gaza.

Palestinian sources told Haaretz that Cairo demanded Saturday morning that the militant group respond to its cease-fire proposal within 48 hours. Egypt warned that if Hamas rejects its offer, Egypt would be unable to stop Israel from continuing its ground offensive.

Senior officers in the Israel Defense Forces told Haaretz that for further achievements, the army will have to expand the operation by at least 20 days and include reserve units in the fighting. A senior officer in Gaza said Hamas' capabilities were gradually eroding and that the group had lost more than 300 militants from its armed wing since the ground operation began.

Amos Gilad, the head of the Defense Ministry's political-security branch, will travel this week, most likely on Monday, for talks in Cairo with the head of the Egyptian security services. Saturday a Hamas delegation arrived in the Egyptian capital for similar talks.

A political source in Jerusalem said Gilad was instructed to address only smuggling into Gaza, and not other issues related to renewing a cease-fire with Hamas.

In Friday's cabinet meeting, Gilad told ministers that Egypt understands the need to stop smuggling, but that a program for doing so had not yet been formulated. "They are willing to sign on to deal with the issue, and we will continue talking with them until we reach a practical solution," he said.

Still, Gilad reportedly remarked recently that "the Egyptians are great at making efforts, but not at achieving results."

A high-level Israeli political source said Friday that without a solution to the smuggling including an effective supervisory system on the Egyptian border, the Gaza operation will not be brought to an end.

Israel made clear in talks with officials representing the United States, France, Germany and other countries that only a solution including an international presence on the Egyptian side of the Philadelphi route will satisfy Israel and allow it to end the offensive.

Defense officials have noticed heightened Iranian involvement in Hamas' activity in the Strip. It appears the group's leadership has received promises from Tehran to "fill up the warehouses," possibly even with longer-range rockets, if it continues hostilities with Israel.

Meanwhile, Damascus-based politburo chief Khaled Meshal Saturday rejected outright the option of allowing an international force at the Egyptian border, whether representing an Arab or any other foreign country.

Israel has "finished off the last chance and breath for settlement and negotiations," he said in a televised speech from the Syrian capital.

Also Saturday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas criticized Hamas, saying the Palestinian people did not want to engage in "resistance" that will destroy them. He called for an international force to be deployed to Gaza immediately to protect its residents.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017