JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Wednesday authorized the army to carry out limited operations in the Gaza Strip, but ruled out a large-scale ground offensive in response to a new round of rocket attacks, Israeli officials said.
The decision was made at an emergency meeting that Olmert held with senior security officials following the fresh rocket fire by Hamas militants in Gaza. The violence has threatened to unravel a five-month cease-fire.
Two meeting participants said Olmert agreed to allow the army to carry out "pinpoint" operations to halt the rocket fire, but decided against a widespread offensive, essentially continuing current Israeli policy in Gaza. There have been growing calls in military circles for tougher action in Gaza.
The participants spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.
On Tuesday, the Islamic militant group said its members fired 41 rockets and 54 mortar shells in response to Israeli raids.
The Israeli military said it could confirm the launching of only six rockets and eight shells. Just two rockets reached Israel, causing no casualties or injuries, the army said.
Israeli media, citing military officials, said the rocket bombardment apparently had been intended to create a diversion in order to capture an Israeli soldier near the Gaza border. The military refused to comment on the reports.
Hamas-linked militants have been holding a 20-year-old Israeli corporal, Gilad Shalit, captive since capturing him in a cross-border raid last June.
The head of an Egyptian security delegation in Gaza, Maj. Gen. Burhan Hamad, called a meeting of all Palestinian factions Wednesday morning, urging them to maintain the calm "to avert any possible Israeli invasion of Gaza."
He condemned the rocket barrages, as well as Israeli raids earlier in the week that killed nine Palestinians, most of them militants. Egypt frequently acts as a mediator between Israel and Palestinian militants.
Hamas is a partner in the Palestinian coalition government, whose platform calls for a long-term truce with Israel.
Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced the Gaza truce in late November, declaring an end to Palestinian rocket fire and Israeli attacks, including airstrikes at Gaza militants and invasions of towns in northern Gaza.
Israel has stopped most of military activity but kept Gaza in a stranglehold by frequently closing its vital border crossings, citing security threats. While Hamas rocket squads stayed on the sidelines, other groups, like Islamic Jihad, have kept up fire of homemade rockets almost daily at Israeli towns and villages just outside Gaza.
Tuesday's rocket barrage, coinciding with Israeli Independence Day, was the first sign Hamas was backing away from the truce.
"The cease-fire has been over for a long time, and Israel is responsible for that," Hamas spokesman Abu Obeida, told the Voice of Palestine radio station.
On a visit to Rome, Abbas called on Israel to "exercise the necessary self-control" and said the "truce violation is an exceptional act which will not last."
Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas appeared to defend the attack. "We made great efforts at keeping the truce and there was a positive Palestinian position, but unfortunately this position was met by expanding (Israeli) aggression and escalating it against the Palestinian people," he said.
Haniyeh's spokesman, Ghazi Hamad, also blamed Israel, but said the Palestinian government "affirms the importance of maintaining the truce and protecting it."
Also Wednesday, the army ended a general closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The closure, put in place on Sunday for Israeli Memorial Day and Independence Day, had barred virtually all Palestinians from entering Israel. Thousands of Palestinians enter Israel each day for work, medical care and family visits.