IDF to escalate Gaza ops as Barak heads to Sharm for truce talks

The IDF plans to escalate its operations against Hamas in the Gaza Strip after US President George W. Bush leaves Israel on Friday, senior defense officials said Thursday. At the same time, Israel is continuing its dialogue with Egypt over the cease-fire proposal that Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman presented in Jerusalem earlier this week and which Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is said to be leaning toward accepting. Defense Minister Ehud Barak is scheduled to travel to Sharm e-Sheikh next week to participate in the World Economic Forum and to hold talks with Suleiman and possibly President Hosni Mubarak regarding the proposal, The Jerusalem Post has learned. Olmert is scheduled to visit Egypt for talks with Mubarak the following week. Defense officials said Thursday that Barak and Olmert would likely "close the loose ends" on the cease-fire deal brokered by Suleiman with Hamas. Earlier in the day, Barak visited the Ashkelon mall that was struck by a Grad-model Katyusha rocket on Wednesday and said Israel would find a way to stop the rocket fire in the coming months. "You need to grit your teeth, but not for many more months," Barak told the residents of Ashkelon during a tour of the scene together with Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i and OC Home Front Command Maj.-Gen. Yair Golan. "We won't allow this to continue for much longer. I am not talking about years or many months. We will do what needs to be done." Throughout the day a number of rockets were fired into Israel, including a Grad-model Katyusha that hit a field outside Netivot without causing injuries. Two Hamas gunmen were killed when IAF aircraft bombed a terrorist observation post in Gaza City before dawn. Several people were treated for shock when Palestinians fired three Kassam rockets from the Gaza Strip at Sderot Thursday night. One of the rockets hit a synagogue, causing damage. Another projectile fell outside the city and police were searching for the third. Earlier Thursday evening, Palestinians fired three rockets at the Sderot area. One of the rockets hit an industrial zone near the city, while another landed in a wheat field in the Sha'ar Hanegev region, causing a fire. One woman was treated for shock in that attack. Meanwhile, terrorists fired three mortar shells from the northern Gaza Strip at the Nahal Oz area. There were no reports of injuries in that attack, which raised to eight the total number of shells fired during the day. In an indication of Palestinian success in increasing their rocket range, the IDF Home Front Command decided to connect Netivot to the Kassam early-warning alarm system. The decision was made following a security assessment held in the wake of Katyusha rocket fire nearby. Defense officials said that while the IDF was preparing for possible military action in Gaza, Israel was still interested in obtaining a cease-fire with Hamas, via Egyptian mediation. The officials said that during his meetings with Suleiman and Mubarak, Barak would stress that Israel would only accept a cease-fire if abducted IDF Cpl. Gilad Schalit's release was one of its primary elements. In addition to expediting Schalit's release, Israel has said that it would accept the cease-fire deal - which calls for a six-month halt to IDF operations and Hamas terrorism in Gaza - if Egypt made considerable efforts to curb the smuggling of arms into the Gaza Strip. A senior official involved in the cease-fire talks said Thursday the defense establishment was skeptical that Hamas would release Schalit in exchange for a truce. "The chances of this happening are slim," the official said. "If they don't agree to our conditions then the chances of a large-scale operation will increase significantly."