Israel decided to hold off on a major military offensive in the Gaza Strip to give new Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas more time to act against militants, a senior government official said yesterday, after a top PLO body urged armed groups to halt attacks on Israel.
Also yesterday, residents in the Israeli town of Sderot, hard-hit by Palestinian rockets fired from nearby Gaza, observed a general strike to protest the military's inability to stop the attacks. Black mourning flags were raised for four Sderot residents killed in recent months. A 15-year-old girl was critically injured by a rocket over the weekend and two more rockets fell on Sderot's outskirts yesterday, causing no damage.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell called Abbas on Sunday to discuss the latest downturn in Israeli-Palestinian relations, a US official in Jerusalem said. He would not elaborate.
The crisis was triggered by a Palestinian attack that killed six Israeli civilians at the Karni cargo crossing between Gaza and Israel on Thursday, two days before Abbas was sworn in as Palestinian Authority president.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon demanded an immediate Palestinian crackdown on militants, but Abbas insisted he'll only use persuasion, not force, to stop the attacks. Sharon then suspended all contacts with the new Palestinian leadership, and the Israeli military raided several areas of Gaza in an attempt to stop the rocket fire.
Sixteen Palestinians have been killed in army raids since the Karni attack, among them nine gunmen and seven civilians, including a 10-year-old boy. The deaths included a 28-year-old man and his 59-year-old mother who were killed by Israeli tank fire at their home on Sunday night.
Early yesterday, Israeli troops withdrew from areas of Gaza City, ending a four-day operation meant to stop the rocket attacks.
After the pullback, two armed Palestinians approached a no-go zone near the border fence with Israel and soldiers opened fire, killing one of them, the army said. In searches, troops found an anti-tank missile launcher and a missile and came under fire from the second gunman, who was killed by return fire, the army said.
The Islamic Jihad group said it had sent the gunmen.
Sharon has sent mixed signals since the Karni attack. Early Sunday, he said he gave the military permission to act without restrictions against rocket fire.
However, a senior Israeli official said yesterday that Sharon has decided against a major military offensive in Gaza.
"The option of a broad offensive was never preferred," the official said on condition of anonymity. "For now, we will do more small operations, and we hope that he [Abbas] will come to his senses and do something ... In any case, we want to give him a chance to operate."
As part of his efforts to stop attacks, Abbas, who is also head of the PLO, met with top PLO officials Sunday in the West Bank city of Ramallah. The officials called on militants to "stop all the military action that might harm our national goals and give the Israelis an excuse to obstruct Palestinian stability," but they gave no indication they would take any action against militants who ignore them.
Israeli officials said Abbas will be judged by his deeds, not his words.
"Despite the change in the Palestinian leadership, we note that those at the top have not begun any action whatsoever to halt the terrorism," Sharon told his Cabinet on Sunday. "The situation cannot continue."