Responding to media reports that Israeli leaders were considering a full-scale invasion of Palestinian-controlled territories, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told Fox News in an exclusive interview Wednesday afternoon that such an operation is "not in the offing."
USA Today reported in its Wednesday edition that cabinet officials said that if the current wave of suicide bombings continue, invasion would be a serious possibility.
"I have no doubt the prime minister wants to avoid a war as much as possible," Israeli Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin told the newspaper Tuesday. "But if Arafat forces us to go to war, we will go to war." He said that new terrorist attacks "will not leave Israel any alternatives."
Not all Israeli officials who spoke to USA Today were so confident about an invasion. Many Israelis would die if full-scale war broke out, noted Industry Minister Dalia Itzik.
"Apparently, no one has learned from history," she added.
In other developments, Israeli troops shot and killed a militia leader in an ambush Wednesday morning.
Emad Abu Sneineh, 25, was shot as he got out of a car near his home in Hebron, said a relative. The shots came from undercover troops inside a parked blue-and-white truck, which then drove into the Israeli-controlled sector of the city, the witness said
Israeli security officials, speaking anonymously, said Abu Sneineh, a leader of the Tanzim militia affiliated with Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization, was killed because he had been involved in shooting attacks on Jews in Hebron since the beginning of fighting last October. The officials added that there had been no attempt to arrest Abu Sneineh.
There are about 500 religious Jewish settlers living in Hebron, heavily guarded by Israeli troops in the middle of an otherwise Arab city. Both Judaism and Islam consider Hebron to be the location of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where Abraham, forefather of both Jews and Arabs, and other Old Testament figures are believed to be buried.
Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Abu Sneineh "had a lot of blood on his hands," but would not comment on Israel's role. Israel has killed more than 50 suspected Palestinian militants in recent months.
The Palestinian Authority said such killings constituted state terrorism and "shut the doors to possible political solutions." Cabinet Minister Nabil Amr said the Palestinians want the U.N. Security Council to debate Israel's latest moves. Worldwide condemnation of the targeted killings, including by the United States, has been forceful.
Cabinet officials told USA Today that while invasion is being debated, Prime Minister Sharon for the meantime plans to continue sending Israeli forces in brief incursions into Palestinian territory, such as the quick in-and-out takeover of the West Bank town of Jenin on Monday.
In that maneuver, which took place after a suicide bomber from Jenin injured 20 people in a Haifa cafe, tanks entered the city, blasted down the Palestinian police station and then left.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker called the Jenin incursion "provocative." President Bush said he was worried violence would escalate. Arafat "must clamp down on the suicide bombers," Bush said Tuesday, "and the Israelis must show restraint."
Future operations would involve the arrests of suspected militants and the destruction of arms caches and structures used in attacks on Israelis, the cabinet members said.
Along those lines, Israeli troops and armored personnel carriers took positions Tuesday evening outside the West Bank town of Beit Jalla, following gunfire between Palestinians and soldiers protecting a nearby Jewish suburb of Jerusalem. As of midday Wednesday, the troops had not entered the village.
"I decided to give a chance to the quiet that was promised by the other side," Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said. "Information reached me that Yasser Arafat is making every effort to stop it [the shooting], and it stopped."
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Sharon's office announced that Israel had arrested several members of Islamic Jihad group who were planning to carry out a major suicide bombing near the Israeli port city of Haifa.
The suspects, residents of Jenin, told investigators they had hidden a bomb in Israel. Sharon's office said Israeli agents found and defused the explosives.
On Tuesday, Sharon warned that if violence continues, "the Palestinians will lose additional assets, and they have something to lose."
The Associated Press contributed to this report