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Prime Minister Ehud Olmert held off on a planned incursion into the northern Gaza Strip Thursday night, ordering the military to suspend its plans to take over the Kassam launch sites and to give diplomatic efforts one last chance to retrieve kidnapped IDF soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit.
Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman was expected to meet Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal today and discuss the situation with him. Israel believes that while the international community did not succeed in their attempts to press Hamas, Egypt does have some influence with the organization and that it is worth another try.
Columns of tanks and an entire infantry regiment had been put on standby outside Kibbutz Mefalsim near northern Gaza in preparation for the planned incursion initially scheduled for Thursday night. But following consultations at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, Olmert ordered Defense Minister Amir Peretz to put the incursion on hold.
Late Thursday night, IAF missiles hit the Palestinian electricity distribution network in the northern Gaza Strip, plunging parts of the district into darkness, Palestinian officials said. The officials said two power transformers were struck, and two security officers were wounded by shrapnel. Hours earlier, four Kassam rockets landed in open fields near Sderot. Two more hit south of Ashkelon. No one was wounded and no damage was caused.
Olmert, officials said, spoke with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak late Wednesday night and discussed the tense situation. The defense establishment, an official who participated in the meeting said, asked for permission to invade northern Gaza but was rebuffed by Olmert, who asked for additional time to see if the Egyptian efforts would bear fruit.
"We are in one of the most crucial stages of establishing the rules of conduct between us and the Palestinian terror organizations," Peretz asserted Thursday, revealing that a "surprising diplomatic breakthrough" was in the works to release Shalit.
Following a consultation with defense officials in the afternoon, Peretz approved additional phases of "Operation Summer Rains," launched Tuesday night to pressure Hamas terrorists into releasing Shalit, abducted on Sunday during a terror strike on his IDF outpost near the Kerem Shalom crossing.
"We cannot just wait until more people are killed by us so we can get permission to defend ourselves," IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz said during an IAF ceremony in the South. "We need to kill those who rise to kill us."
Adding to the already tense situation, the IDF found the body Thursday morning of Eliahu Asheri, 18, from Itamar who was kidnapped on Sunday by a Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) cell. In addition, IDF and Israel Police units raided West Bank cities before dawn Thursday and rounded up over 80 Hamas officials and politicians, including Parliament Speaker Abdel Aziz Duaik and Finance Minister Omar Abdel Razek.
Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar on Thursday forbade hitchhiking in the territories. He said the Torah decrees that people should not endanger their lives. The Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip called on the government to improve transportation in the territories where buses do not run frequently enough to service the needs of the settlers. It also asked that Palestinian cars be prevented from using Israeli roads in the territories.
While a ground invasion was put on hold, IAF jets pounded suspected weapons factories, terrorist training camps and empty areas in southern Gaza, and heavy artillery fire targeted the north. Late Thursday, navy missile ships also opened fire at Kassam launch sites in northern Gaza.
As part of the continuing offensive, the IAF also fired missiles at a car in Gaza City transporting an Islamic Jihad terror cell. One of the wanted men was wounded and the others emerged from the strike unharmed after the missile missed the car.
Meanwhile Thursday, Hamas operatives laid an explosive device along the border with Egypt, blasting a large hole in the border fence. Egyptian officers lined the breach and Palestinian security forces fired in the air to prevent entry of Palestinians into the Sinai Peninsula.
Tovah Lazaroff and AP contributed to this report.