Barak says Israel is 'close' to Gaza operation

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At least two civilians were reportedly among eight Palestinians killed in Gaza yesterday by Israeli forces as Ehud Barak, the Defence Minister, warned that a "widespread" military operation in the Strip was "getting closer".

Five militants were killed when a missile fired from the air hit the car in which they were travelling and which the Israeli military said was also carrying missiles ready for launching into Israel. Unconfirmed reports said that the men killed were from the Army of Islam, the group that kidnapped the BBC journalist Alan Johnston this year.

But Palestinian witnesses were quoted by Reuters as saying a gunman and two bystanders were also killed by a tank shell, which also wounded 21 Palestinians in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, where Israeli ground forces were attempting to halt the firing of Qassam rockets by Gaza's militants.

Mr Barak said in an interview with Army Radio yesterday: "We are getting closer to carrying out a widespread operation in Gaza, which, for many reasons, has not taken place in the past weeks."

But the minister also warned that such a large-scale operation, which has been demanded by right-wing politicians in response to the rocket attacks into Israel, was "not simple, not in terms of the forces and the amount of time which we will have to stay there or in terms of the operational challenges which the troops will have to meet".

A large-scale operation against Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza was originally rejected by the cabinet last month in favour of the plans to cut fuel and power to the Strip, which the cabinet endorsed last week when it declared it a "hostile entity".

Ministers resolved on more limited operations of the kind which resulted in the Palestinian deaths yesterday. There have been conflicting signals about the possibility of a large-scale military operation in Gaza. Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a member of the inner security cabinet, told the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz this week that he was opposed to such an operation, which had to be "the very last alternative there is".

Mr Ben-Eliezer said that forces moving into Gaza in large numbers would be entering a "quagmire" and "you know how you are going in but you don't know how you are coming out". He added: "You pay a price for that and you have no certainty they won't continue to fire from there on [the Israeli border town of] Sderot." The military said nine Qassams and 20 mortar shells were launched into Israel yesterday but there were no reported injuries. Mr Ben-Eliezer has emerged as the leading advocate of releasing the jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, whom he described in the Ha'aretz interview as "in my opinion, the next leader of the Palestinians".

The Israeli daily Maariv reported yesterday that "most of the ministers" in the governing coalition were in favour of the release of Mr Barghouti if it was part of a deal involving the freeing of the Israeli corporal Gilad Shalit, who was abducted in Gaza in July last year. Mr Barghouti, said Mr Ben-Eliezer, was in a "troika" in the leadership of Fatah and non-Hamas forces with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, and Salam Fayad, the Prime Minister appointed by Mr Abbas to head the Ramallah-based emergency government.

He continued: "I'm looking above all for security. And if talking with Barghouti results in him leading the Palestinians in the direction of making Hamas knuckle under then that is what counts."