Israel's army has developed a plan to create a "buffer zone" inside the edge of the Gaza Strip to halt the latest wave of Palestinian rocket attacks, military officials said Tuesday.
Such Israeli action would likely torpedo a six-month truce in the Gaza Strip and could threaten US efforts to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
In a setback to those efforts, the US State Department announced on Monday that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had canceled an upcoming visit to the region, citing the uncertain political situation after an Israeli commission found Olmert's government mishandled last year's war in Lebanon.
The hobbled Olmert will travel to Jordan on May 15 to meet with King Abdullah, on the sidelines of an annual Jordanian conference for Nobel laureates. The fitful efforts to relaunch Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking are sure to figure in their talks.
The Gaza cease-fire has sharply reduced fighting, but militants continue to fire homemade rockets into southern Israel. The rocket fire has spiked in recent days, including two more projectiles launched Tuesday. No injuries were reported in Tuesday's attack, the army said.
On Monday, Israel carried out a rare airstrike in Gaza, attacking a car carrying rockets near the Israeli border, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned he was losing patience with the rocket barrages.
The military's plan for a 300-meter-deep zone inside Gaza is one of several options Israel is considering to counter the rocket fire, the military officials said on condition of anonymity since they were not allowed to discuss the plan with the media.
Ghazi Hamad, spokesman for Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, called the proposal a "dangerous idea."
"It will cause more confrontations. It won't provide stability," he said.
Military commanders have presented the plan to Olmert's Cabinet but it has not yet been approved, the officials said. The plan will be debated by senior Cabinet ministers next week, Haaretz reported Tuesday.
Israel periodically carries out "pinpoint" operations on the edges of Gaza to halt rocket launchings. The military's plan calls for a greater presence that would be constant in some places, the officials said.
The plan also calls for an increase in attacks on rocket launchers, including airstrikes on high-ranking militants who oversee the firings, the officials said. Olmert has already agreed to slightly expand the area in the Gaza Strip in which the army can operate, Haaretz said.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah party sits in the government with Hamas, has repeatedly condemned the rocket attacks, but has been unable to halt them. Ending the rocket fire is a key component of a new US proposal for easing Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement while also improving Israeli security.
Olmert and Abbas have held several meetings recently, and Haaretz said Tuesday they had opened a secret negotiation channel.
The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, called the report "baseless. There is no such thing."
The two men will meet in the West Bank town of Jericho, but no date has been scheduled, he added.
Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin also said there have been no secret talks. But she said neither the venue nor the date of the next Abbas-Olmert meeting had been confirmed. The two will meet "very soon," she said.
Abbas and Olmert agreed to form teams that would meet to discuss issues relating to a future state, said a senior Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity. The teams haven't met yet because they haven't agreed on an agenda, he said.
(China Daily via agencies May 9, 2007)