Israel puts ‘temporary hold’ on Gaza ground operation

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JERUSALEM – Israeli ministers have decided to hold off from launching a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip to give Egyptian-led truce efforts a chance to work, a senior Israeli official told AFP on Tuesday.

“A decision was taken that for the time being there is a temporary hold on the ground incursion to give diplomacy a chance to succeed,” he said after a late-night meeting of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s key ministers, the Forum of Nine.

“They discussed both the state of the diplomacy and the military operation,” he said on condition of anonymity.

As an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire plan took shape at indirect negotiations in Cairo between Israel and a Hamas team, a stream of top-level diplomats headed for the region to throw their weight behind efforts to end the violence which on Tuesday entered its seventh day.

In the morning, Netanyahu held talks with German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle, telling him Israel was looking to secure a “long-term” agreement that would ensure rockets were not smuggled into the Hamas-run territory.

“I believe that Germany can play a positive role in finding a solution to the conflict based on a long-term arrangement that ensures that such weapons do not again enter the Gaza Strip,” Netanyahu’s office quoted him as saying.

“I prefer a diplomatic solution,” he said. “I hope that we can achieve such a solution, but if not, we have the full right to defend ourselves with other means and we shall use them.”

UN chief Ban Ki-moon, who is currently in Cairo, is to meet Israeli President Shimon Peres later on Tuesday, and Netanyahu and others on Wednesday.

And US officials said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would break away from an Asia visit to travel to Egypt, Israel and the West Bank, with Palestinian officials saying she was to meet Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on Wednesday morning.

As truce efforts grew, Israel continued to build up its ground forces along the Gaza border, ready to go in if required, the Israeli official told AFP.

“Preparations for the ground incursion continue,” he said.

“If we see that diplomacy does not bear fruit — and the time we’ve given to diplomacy is limited — all the preparations are being undertaken so that if and when the order is given the ground incursion can happen expeditiously.”

A statement from the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, said its Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee would meet during the day to rubber stamp a request by defence minister Ehud Barak to raise to 75,000 the number of army reservists he can call up, in a move already approved by the cabinet.

At least 16,000 reservists had been mobilised by the end of last week, out of 30,000 call-ups previously authorised.

The army would not give an updated number on Tuesday, saying only that reservists were constantly being drafted according to need.

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