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Olmert: Gaza operation escalation possible
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Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Thursday said that his government might order the army to step up the ongoing offensive in the Gaza Strip to achieve its goals.  

"The bottom line, the test that will set the political leadership's decision, is how to assure that the reality that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is currently changing does not again control the south and that quiet prevails," he said during a visit to the army's Gaza division.

"To this, we have not yet arrived, and the IDF has not yet been asked to carry out everything necessary in order to do so. The decision is still before us," added Olmert, accompanied by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and some other top officials.

Smoke rises during Israeli's offensive in Gaza Jan. 8, 2009. Palestinians faced even grimmer conditions in the Gaza Strip on Thursday after a U.N. aid agency halted work, saying its staff were at risk from Israeli forces fighting Hamas militants, after two drivers were killed.[Xinhua/Reuters]

Earlier in the day, Barak watched the training of reserve units called up as part of the current Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, and voiced satisfaction with their readiness "for the missions that await them in Gaza," local news service Ynet reported.

The clues to a possible escalation of Israel's operation were revealed after the National Security Cabinet on Wednesday voted to continue the operation at a meeting during which the key ministers could have chosen to expand the offensive.

Should an escalation be greenlighted, tens of thousands of Israeli soldiers would be sent to combat Hamas militants in the Palestinian enclave, where about 763 people have been killed and 3,120 others injured so far in the 13-day-old Israeli onslaught.

Although Israeli officials said that Hamas has sustained significant losses, Gazan militants on Thursday continued to pound southern Israel with rockets, causing several injuries and damage. Among the 11 deaths confirmed by the Israeli side, four was killed in such attacks.

Israel vowed to end rocket fire from Gaza and restore quiet to its southern land by this operation. Many analysts said that its ultimate goal is to reach a lasting ceasefire on terms more favorable to Israel.

While threatening to upgrade the offensive, the Jewish state sends a delegation to Cairo on Thursday for talks on a possible ceasefire, under mounting pressure from the international community.

(Xinhua News Agency January 9, 2009)

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