World to press for calm in Gaza

Olmert spokesman reiterates that the "situation in the south [is] war;" PA threatens to suspend talks.

Israel's intensified offensive in the Gaza Strip is likely to continue for at least another day, after which the international community will likely step in and persuade Hamas to stop its rocket attacks, senior government officials said Saturday night. "Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has called the situation in the south 'war,'" Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev said. "We have to make sure the terrorists understand that the path of violence will in the end hurt them more significantly and acutely than it will hurt us." The comments came after a day of intense fighting in which two IDF soldiers and around 50 Palestinians were killed. The international steps to calm the situation are expected to begin on Sunday, with the arrival in the region of EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to arrive on Tuesday. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, meanwhile, said Israeli would not be deterred by a Palestinian Authority decision to call off the ongoing diplomatic negotiations with Israel as a result of the situation in the Gaza Strip. "Even if the Palestinians suspend talks, it won't influence in any way the decisions or operations Israel needs to take in Gaza and elsewhere to protect its citizens. This condition formed the basis of talks with the moderate elements in Palestinian Authority from the beginning," she said in a statement. Chief PA negotiator Ahmed Qurei said Palestinian leaders, including PA President Mahmoud Abbas, recommended suspending peace talks at a meeting Saturday in Ramallah. "I think it will be suspended," Qurei said. "What is happening in Gaza is a massacre of civilians, women and children, a collective killing, genocide. We can't bear what the Israelis are doing, and what the Israelis are doing doesn't lend the peace process any credibility." Despite these comments, Regev said, "Israel remains committed to the goal of trying to reach an agreement by the end of the year." Nevertheless, he said, "what is going on in Gaza is a very serious problem." A senior government source said that suspending the talks was one of Hamas's aims. "There is no doubt that one of the group's goals is to torpedo the Annapolis process," the official said. "We agreed that the negotiations would continue without any connection to what was taking place on the ground, and despite the continued rocket attacks, we continued the talks without let-up. The decision to stop the talks plays into the hands of Hamas, which wants to torpedo the process that determined that the negotiations would take place even in parallel to the rocket attacks." Livni spoke Saturday with Rice and Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, and said Israel was acting to protect its citizens. One senior government official explained Israel's actions as an attempt to reverse the trend of recent weeks and put Hamas on the defensive, allowing Israel to dictate the rhythm and flow of events in the South. "We have different options available to us, and we have to make sure that the terrorists understand that they will be defeated," he said. The official said Israel had to be careful not to adopt strategies that played into Hamas's hands. Although he did not spell out which strategies would do so, there is concern in Jerusalem that an all-out ground invasion is something that Hamas has prepared for and is expecting. "We need to keep the pressure up on them, and make sure they realize they will continue to pay a price," the official said. The government will hear security briefings on the situation in the South at its weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, but no emergency security cabinet meeting has been scheduled for the day, though one dealing more in depth with Gaza may be convened later in the week. Foreign Minister Director-General Aaron Abramovich convened an emergency meeting of the ministry's senior staff on Saturday night to map out strategy to combat the diplomatic and public relations fallout from the day's fighting. Among the points that Israel's diplomats aboard will stress are that Hamas's stepped-up rocket attacks were a response in part to its failure to carry off a mass protest march on the border crossings earlier in the week, something that was widely interpreted as a failure. In addition, Israel's overseas envoys have been directed to emphasize that the Palestinians are endangering their own people by firing missiles from populated areas. Governments around the world were slow to react to the fighting, largely because it took place over the weekend. Quartet envoy Tony Blair, however, issued a statement condemning the rocket attacks on Israel, but calling on Israel to avoid causing Palestinian civilian casualties. "The loss of civilian life including children is absolutely tragic," Blair said. "The rocket attacks which resulted in the death of an innocent Israeli and injuries to many more must cease, and are utterly to be condemned. But it is vital that in action against them, everything possible is done to avoid the loss of innocent Palestinian life, so that there are not even more victims of the situation created in Gaza." AP contributed to this report