JERUSALEM: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and other senior ministers discussed the possible expansion of the ground offensive launched on Saturday night deeper into Palestinian towns, despite appearing to welcome a Franco-Egyptian initiative to end the 12-day-old war on Gaza, stopping short of endorsing it.
“Barak has instructed the army to prepare for the third stage of the operation, a senior defence official told AFP.
“We can’t see the operation stopping in the coming days. We still have to study the details of the Egyptian proposal, the official said.
Since Israel started Operation Cast Lead against Hamas on Dec. 27, at least 689 Palestinians have been killed, including 215 children, according to Gaza medics.
Palestinians have fired hundreds of rockets into southern Israel during the same period, killing four people. Six soldiers have also been killed in the fighting.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Tuesday invited Israel for urgent talks on a plan to end the offensive which will include new security measures to halt smuggling across the Egypt-Gaza border, a key Israeli demand.
Under a 2005 deal, the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza can only be opened to normal traffic if European Union observers and PA forces are at the border, which is also monitored by Israel.
Israel continued pounding Gaza on Wednesday as tanks and ground troops engaged in battles with Hamas fighters on the outskirts of Gaza City.
Meanwhile Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas is to head to Cairo to discuss the Egyptian plan.
“The Palestinian Authority and president Mahmoud Abbas welcome favorably the initiative launched by President Mubarak last night with the aim of ending the aggression in Gaza, the official MENA news agency quoted Nabil Amr as saying.
Abbas will travel to Cairo on Friday for talks on Saturday with Mubarak, he added, to discuss the plan aimed at ending fighting between Israel and Hamas.
Hamas wrestled control of the Gaza Strip from Abbas’ Fatah in June 2007, and in November boycotted Egyptian efforts to reconcile the divided factions.
Mubarak has previously said he would not reopen Rafah because he did not want to officialise the rift between Abbas’ Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas.
Israel and Hamas have yet to say whether they will send anyone to Cairo to discuss a prospective truce, although both sides have called a temporary easing of their hostilities after the Egyptian plan was floated late on Tuesday. -Agencies