Israeli leaders on Wednesday decided against a broad invasion of the Gaza Strip, saying they wanted to give Egypt more time to broker a truce with Gaza's militant Hamas rulers, despite a flare-up in violence that killed a 6-year-old Gaza girl and wounded two Israelis.
At the same time, Israel said it would push forward with preparations for an offensive and keep attacking Palestinian militants to try to stop daily rocket and mortar barrages from Gaza.
On Wednesday, Israeli aircraft fired a missile at a group of militants in northern Gaza, but Palestinians say it hit a house instead, killing a 6-year-old girl, Hadeel al-Smari, who was in the backyard. Israel blamed the militants for setting up launchers in crowded neighborhoods.
The military said it identified hitting the rocket squad, but was unaware of any Palestinian civilian casualties. A 55-year-old Palestinian civilian and two militants were also killed in clashes across the territory, and two Israelis were wounded by mortar shells fired from Gaza.
'Our lives are hell'
A relative of the dead girl, Ahmad al-Smari, said Palestinian civilians are affected harshly by the Israeli attacks. "Our lives are hell. We cannot sleep or enjoy peace in our houses because of the army fire," al-Smari said in a telephone interview from the hospital in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis.
In parallel, Israelis who live near Gaza are clamoring for their government to take action to stop the attacks that are disrupting their lives and causing casualties.
But Israel's Security Cabinet, made up of senior ministers, deflected pressure to order the army into Gaza immediately. Instead, it authorized Defense Minister Ehud Barak to "exhaust the dialogue with Egypt in order to achieve all of Israel's conditions for an actual calm," or truce, according to a government statement.
At the same time, however, the Security Cabinet instructed the military "to prepare for military action in the Gaza Strip, according to a rapid timetable, should the Cabinet convene and make a decision to this effect," the statement said, adding that progress toward releasing a soldier Hamas has been holding for two years must be part of the deal.
There was no immediate Egyptian comment on the Israeli decision.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri accused Israel of double-talk. "The government wants to maneuver and blackmail the Palestinian factions while continuing its daily aggression," Abu Zuhri said.
Egypt trying to broker truce
Israeli Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad was expected to travel to Cairo on Thursday to try to wrap up a truce, according to defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the contacts are secret.
Egypt has been trying to broker a truce for months, mediating between Hamas and Israel, which do not deal directly with each other. Hamas demands that Israel must release its blockade of Gaza, imposed after Hamas overran the territory a year ago.
Though there is considerable Israeli public support for a large-scale invasion, the main problem facing policymakers is that so far, no military operation has succeeded in stopping the barrages for long. Even when Israel has sent significant numbers of forces into Gaza, inflicting dozens of casualties and igniting severe international criticism, the rocket fire has resumed as soon as the troops pulled out.
An even wider operation with the goal of trying to overthrow the Hamas regime would mean house-to-house fighting in one of the world's most crowded and poverty-stricken territories, facing Islamic militants who have little to lose. That would virtually guarantee high casualties on both sides.
On the other hand, Israel is skeptical of the truce concept, assuming Hamas would use the lull to rearm and regroup, especially since the militants have said they would use a truce to prepare for the next round of fighting. Hamas does not accept the presence of a Jewish state in an Islamic Middle East and has sent dozens of suicide bombers into Israel, most recently in February.
Speaking before the Security Cabinet vote, Vice Premier Haim Ramon said there could be both a truce and an invasion.
"Even those who support the calm say it would only last a month or two, and then Hamas will violate it," Ramon told Army Radio. "Then we will launch the military operation. Everybody agrees that it is just a matter of when."