Israel Shelves Gaza
Strike Amid Peace Pressure

Israel Shelves Gaza Strike Amid Peace Pressure

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel shelved a strike into the Gaza Strip amid international pressure on Saturday for a respite from violence to give peace diplomacy a chance.
The delay in the widely expected strike against Palestinian militants extended a pause in the Israel-Palestinian conflict after Friday's resolution of a 39-day siege involving Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity.
But Israeli armor massed around Gaza stayed put, military sources told Reuters.
The European Union's Middle East envoy, Miguel Moratinos, said 13 Palestinian militants released from the Bethlehem church and flown to Cyprus on Friday for exile abroad would leave for third countries as free men.
Israel has said it might still seek the extradition of the 13 as "people whose hands are stained with blood," citing their alleged involvement in suicide bombing missions that killed scores of Israelis as part of a 19-month-old Palestinian uprising.
Moratinos said, after meeting the men confined to a seaside hotel in Larnaca, that they were awaiting "final offers" of exile from EU countries, hopefully by Monday.
Palestinian leaders rejected any handover of the 13, who withstood an Israeli siege of the church along with 26 other militants who were sent to Gaza, saying Israel had no evidence the militants had done anything aside from fighting occupation.
The end of the siege at the Church of the Nativity, which Christians regard as sacred as the birthplace of Jesus, and the postponement of any assault on Gaza offered some breathing room for diplomacy to revive the peace process.
It has been moribund since the Palestinian uprising against Israeli control of much of the West Bank and Gaza erupted in September 2000 after peace talks stalled. At least 1,346 Palestinians and 473 Israelis have died in the uprising.
Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, cited a "ray of hope" for peace. President Bush, whose administration advocates an international Middle East conference in the summer, said the resolution of the Bethlehem standoff should raise prospects for resuming peace negotiations.
A senior Israeli political source said the main reason for the delay in action in Gaza was that Palestinian militants wanted by Israel had gone underground after army officers spoke about the operation to the media.
The political source said Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer had shelved the assault "for the time being" and further action would be considered over the coming days.
The government issued emergency call-up orders to reservists on Thursday in preparation for a major strike against Gaza after a suicide bombing near Tel Aviv on Tuesday that killed 15 people.
Israeli officials hinted that military action would be "surgical," unlike the broad onslaught against Palestinian towns in the West Bank launched in March after earlier suicide bombings.
That offensive caused widespread destruction to Palestinian infrastructure and serious suffering among civilians.
Israel has been urged by foreign leaders to eschew another major military campaign.
"We hope Israel will give up on this invasion completely," Palestinian cabinet minister Nabil Sha'ath told Reuters in Gaza, calling on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to return instead to peace negotiations which collapsed in mid-2000.
Sharon, who says Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's alleged role in terrorism -- denied by his aides -- has disqualified him as a partner for peace, has made talks conditional on an end to Palestinian violence and reforms in the Palestinian Authority.
In a reminder of the gulf between the sides, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, said in a newspaper interview that true peace with Arabs required Israel to give back all Arab lands it occupied in the 1967 Middle East War and allow the return of Palestinian refugees displaced since 1948.
Israel's governments past and present have ruled out both demands as threats to its security and makeup as a Jewish state.
Presidents Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt met on Saturday in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to discuss ways to resume the Middle East peace process, and were to be joined by the Saudi crown prince later.
The U.S. proposal for a summer conference has so far drawn only a lukewarm response from Arab nations, in part because Washington, Israel's main ally, says it would be exploratory only, not empowered to engage in substantive negotiations.


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