7 Jan 2009

Israeli leaders to weigh final ground assault

8:45 pm on 7 January 2009

Israeli leaders will debate on Wednesday whether to order their armed forces to storm into the Gaza Strip's urban centres, in a culmination of a nearly two-week offensive.

After a week of air attacks, Israeli troops and tanks invaded the Hamas-ruled territory on Saturday, clashing with Palestinian forces but not advancing beyond the outskirts of the city of Gaza or other densely populated areas.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's security cabinet is to discuss the third and final stage of the offensive, though ministers may defer a vote.

Postponing a final decision on the plan could allow Israel to keep its forces in readiness while maintaining leeway for any breakthrough in possible truce talks led by Egypt.

Military analysts believe Israeli forces would be severely challenged by combat in Gaza's narrow alleyways, where much of their air support would be irrelevant and where Palestinian fighters would be able to mount hit-and-run ambushes.

Conquering Gaza could amount to a reoccupation of a territory Israel captured from Egypt in a 1967 war and quit in 2005. Israeli leaders have said they do not want to reoccupy Gaza or, for now, to topple Hamas.

Israel's initial ground sweep was reportedly executed well, but military heads were disappointed by what they saw as relatively little Palestinian resistance.

"The assumption was that our forces could draw out the enemy into open areas where they could be eliminated, but they didn't come out in the number we expected," one source said. "Taking the fight into the populated areas would be much tougher."

Two days ago Hamas spokesperson Abu Ubaida said: "We have prepared for you, Zionists, thousands of tough fighters who are waiting for you in every street, every alley and at every house, and they will meet you with iron and fire."