Ehud Barak: Israel won't invade Gaza soon

Israel Materials 6 November 2007 16:04 (UTC +04:00)

( AP ) - Israel has no plans to invade the Gaza Strip in the near future, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Tuesday, hinting he did not want to jeopardize an upcoming U.S.-hosted Mideast peace conference.

Barak has been saying for weeks that it is only a matter of time before Israel launches a large-scale military incursion to halt a continuing wave of Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel. However, with Israel and the Palestinians preparing for the peace conference, Barak told lawmakers now is not the time for widespread military action in Gaza.

"What happens in Gaza brings us closer to a broader operation every day. But we should get to that point only after we consider and examine and exhaust all the other types of operational possibilities," Barak told reporters after testifying to a parliamentary committee.

Barak did not elaborate, but lawmaker Limor Livnat said he signaled in his testimony that he did not want to derail recent peace efforts with the Palestinians.

Israel frequently conducts airstrikes and brief ground incursions against Gaza rocket squads, killing 40 militants in the past three weeks by Barak's account.

It also has imposed financial sanctions on Gaza, including a reduction in fuel supplies to the area, and threatened to reduce electricity as well. Gaza relies on Israel for all of its fuel and more than half of its electricity.

Israel withdrew from Gaza, a crowded seaside strip of 1.4 million people, in 2005, ending 38 years of military rule. But since the pullout, militant groups have repeatedly fired rockets into southern Israel. Despite its overwhelmingly military superiority, Israel has been unable to stop the crude projectiles, which have killed 12 people since 2001 and disrupted life in southern Israeli towns.

Since June, the strip has been ruled by Islamic Hamas militants who violently seized control from forces loyal to the moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas immediately expelled Hamas from the Palestinian government and installed a pro-Western Cabinet in his West Bank stronghold.

Israel and the international community have rallied behind Abbas, while driving Hamas, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist, into deep isolation. The U.S. peace conference, expected to take place in Annapolis, Md., is a key part of that backing.

The seaside Gaza Strip is the smaller of two Palestinian territories that together would make up an eventual Palestinian state. The U.S. and Israel are trying to make the West Bank a working model of what that state could look like.

In a sign of progress, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday said the conference would take place in the last week of November, and he expects invitations to be issued "in the coming days."

U.S. officials have not announced a date or issued invitations, in part due to continuing disagreements between Israel and the Palestinians over the summit's agenda.

Israel and the Palestinians have been trying to formulate a blueprint for a future peace agreement ahead of the conference. But the Palestinians are pressing for greater detail while Israel prefers to be less committal.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in the region this week trying to narrow gaps.

All sides hope the gathering will launch formal peace talks, which broke down nearly seven years ago.

During her visit, Rice said she was pleased with Israeli and Palestinian efforts and, echoing Olmert, said she was optimistic substantial progress could be made before the Bush administration leaves office in early 2009.

Israel and the Palestinians have said future peace talks should be based on the "road map," an internationally backed peace plan that envisions an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. The plan was introduced in 2003, but never got off the ground because Israel continued to expand settlements and the Palestinians failed to crack down on armed militant groups.

In a key test for the Abbas, Palestinian police laid siege to the West Bank's biggest refugee camp on Monday and battled Palestinian militants for more than 12 hours.The police withdrew from the Balata camp early Tuesday with two suspects in custody and a vow that security forces would no longer shy from entering militant strongholds.

The operation, in which a policeman and eight passers-by were wounded by gunfire, was the first major offensive in Abbas' campaign to assert control over gunmen and persuade Israel he can implement a future peace deal.

Israel has raised doubts about Abbas' ability to control the West Bank and implement any peace deal, after his security forces were defeated in a few days of fighting with Hamas in Gaza.

Barak said Tuesday that Abbas must disarm Hamas in Gaza as part of the road map. Such demands could hamper peace efforts, since Abbas has little control over Gaza. It was not immediately clear whether Barak was voicing official Israeli policy or his personal opinion.