GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -- Israel's Cabinet approved retaliation Thursday for Palestinian suicide bombings, expected to include a military strike in the Gaza Strip, while Palestinians arrested 16 Hamas members in a first sign that Yasser Arafat was taking action against terror groups.
In Bethlehem, talks on resolving a five-week standoff at the Church of the Nativity broke down Thursday, after a partial deal had already appeared imminent. The deal foundered over a Palestinian demand to allow a European monitor into the shrine to safeguard 13 suspected militants who were to remain there until they are deported. So far, negotiators have failed to find a country to host them.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon convened his security Cabinet at an air force base early Thursday, immediately after his return from the United States, to approve a response to a Hamas suicide bombing Tuesday in a pool hall in a Tel Aviv suburb. Fifteen Israelis were killed in the attack, the deadliest since Israel launched its West Bank military offensive, "Defensive Shield," on March 29.
The Cabinet did not say what type of response it authorized, but a strike against Gaza was widely expected. Hamas' senior leaders are in Gaza, and Israel has so far refrained from targeting them.
"Target Gaza," read a banner headline in the Maariv daily. The military confirmed that it was calling up reservists, but would not say how many. The last reserve call-up came ahead of operation "Defensive Shield." Israeli media reports also said forces were amassing near the crowded strip, home to more than 1 million Palestinians.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres suggested that the army was not planning a large-scale operation. "We are going to strike at the nests of terrorism, whether in Gaza or elsewhere," Peres said. "The intention is to reach only those places where the isolated concentrations of suicide terrorists are located."
Military commentators also said they expected the Gaza operation to be more limited in nature than the West Bank offensive, during which troops occupied six of the eight main Palestinian towns for periods of up to several weeks. Fighting in Gaza would be much more complicated and could expose troops to greater risks.
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