JERUSALEM (AFP) – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert meets top ministers on Tuesday to weigh up a possible large-scale military offensive against the Gaza Strip to stop rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled territory.
The meeting comes after the family of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held at a secret location in Gaza by Palestinian militants, received a letter from their son who was captured in a deadly cross-border raid two years ago.
Israel’s political and military leaders have for months been mulling a wider military blitz in the besieged coastal strip aimed at ousting the Islamist movement and halting near-daily rocket attacks on southern Israel.
Olmert, whose political future is clouded by a scandal over corruption allegations, will hold talks with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defence Minister Ehud Barak before convening the security cabinet on Wednesday.
“The current situation cannot last. The prime minister will discuss the various options available, including the use of force,” government spokesman Mark Regev told AFP.
He said a decision was possible after the security cabinet meeting.
“There is no doubt that an offensive in Gaza is inevitable but the timing is the question,” a senior defence official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“An operation now could jeopordise efforts to bring about the release of Gilad Shalit and strain Israel’s ties with Egypt.”
Four rockets fired from Gaza hit southern Israel on Tuesday, without causing casualties or damage, the military said. Last Thursday an Israeli worker was killed in a mortar attack claimed by Hamas.
“We need a broad operation in Gaza against Hamas and the terror groups. Everyone realises that a ceasefire would be temporary and it would only serve Hamas,” Housing Minister Zeev Boim said.
“The situation in the south is intolerable and Israel must not accept this reality. A ceasefire means that the next round would only be worse.”
Since Hamas seized power in Gaza nearly a year ago, Israel has sealed the impoverished territory off from all but limited humanitarian aid and launched regular air strikes and limited ground incursions.
On Monday, a foundation run by former US president Jimmy Carter passed on a letter from Shalit to his family, following an agreement in April between Carter and exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Damascus.
The letter was the first evidence that Shalit remains alive since a recording released last June in which the soldier said his health was deteriorating and he called on Israel to make greater efforts to free him.
In the latest letter Shalit writes: “I’m doing badly, save me, don’t abandon me — I want to come home quickly,” according to Israel’s mass-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper.
Hamas has always insisted Shalit is alive and being treated well, and blames Israel for the failure to reach an agreement for his release in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.
But senior defence ministry official Amos Gilad told army radio: “There is no link between this letter and any eventual military operation.”
Israeli leaders have demanded information on Shalit’s well-being as a condition for its acceptance of an Egyptian-brokered Gaza truce proposal agreed to by several Palestinian factions, including Hamas.
The truce talks have dragged on for months, with Israel demanding assurances that militants will not use any period of calm to smuggle weapons through tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.
“I oppose a ceasefire — it would not last very long in any event. Hamas will say it cannot control the other groups,” Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit told reporters, referring to smaller more radical factions.
“Israel would signal weakness by accepting a ceasefire.”
Hamas has demanded that Israel ease the blockade and allow the opening of border crossings, particularly the Rafah crossing with Egypt — the only exit to the outside world that bypasses Israel.
Hamas also insists that any negotiations on a prisoner exchange be kept separate from truce talks.