Israel Approves New Military Strikes As Tanks Roll Towards Gaza

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon convened the security cabinet meeting immediately upon his return from meetings with U.S. officials, which were cut short after Tuesday’s suicide attack at a pool hall outside Tel Aviv that killed 15 Israelis.

“The security cabinet authorized the prime minister and defense minister to decide upon operations against terrorist targets,” an Israeli government statement said.

While details of possible retaliatory operations have not been released, an incursion into Gaza is thought to be among the most likely options. Shortly after the cabinet’s declaration today, witnesses reported seeing Israeli tanks heading towards the area, which is a stronghold of the militant group Hamas.

There are conflicting reports on whether Hamas has claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s suicide bombing.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres earlier suggested a possible Gaza offensive would be limited in comparison to April’s “Defensive Shield” operation in the West Bank.

“We are going to strike at the nests of terrorism, whether in Gaza or elsewhere,” Peres said Thursday. “The intention is to reach only those places where the isolated concentrations of suicide terrorists are located.”

Israel army radio said the army began calling up emergency reservists Thursday following the cabinet’s vote to retaliate for the Tel Aviv attack. Military officials would not confirm the number of reservists called up.

Also Thursday, the Palestinian Authority said it had arrested at least 16 Hamas leaders. According to unnamed Hamas officials, no senior Hamas members were arrested.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat appeared on Palestinian television to denounce the recent attacks against Israelis. In his statement, he said, “I gave my orders and directions to all the Palestinian security forces to confront and prevent all terror attacks against Israeli civilians from any Palestinian side or parties.”

In Bethlehem, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators again broke off talks to end the standoff at the Church of the Nativity. Under a proposed deal, 13 Palestinians would be exiled outside the Palestinian territories, 26 Palestinian militants would be transferred to a prison in Gaza, and some 80 Palestinian and international activists would be allowed to leave freely.

On Wednesday, negotiations broke down when Italy originally balked at the idea of accepting the exiled Palestinians, described as “senior terrorists” by Israeli authorities. European diplomats said Thursday that a new deal was emerging that would divide the deported militants among several countries.

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