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Israel Sends Reservists Home After Apparently Delaying Gaza Offensive - 2002-05-12

The Israeli army has begun sending home reserve soldiers who had been called up for a planned military offensive against the Gaza Strip. Observers say this is further evidence that the operation, which had been proposed following a Palestinian suicide bombing, has been called off for the time being.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is retreating from a planned Gaza Strip offensive under pressure from the United States and amid dissent over the operation among the country's generals.

Residents in Gaza, home to one million Palestinians, had been bracing themselves for an Israeli military assault since last week, following a suicide bombing in a Tel Aviv pool hall that killed 15 Israelis, along with the bomber.

But Israeli army generals feared such a campaign could end in disaster, with wanted Palestinian militants having already gone into hiding, and the potential for high numbers of casualties on both sides.

Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer confirmed that the operation had been called off for the time being.

He says that every effort should first be made to see whether the Palestinians were willing to return to the path of peaceful negotiations.

At the same time, he says, Israel would not hesitate to revive the option of a military action in the Gaza Strip, if Palestinians renewed their attacks against citizens of the Jewish state.

As plans for the Gaza operation were scrapped, Prime Minister Sharon faced a key battle over policy issues with his right-wing Likud party.

Mr. Sharon has said that he supports the establishment of a Palestinian state, following the cessation of hostilities.

Supporters of former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, are pushing for a resolution in the Likud that would prevent the party from ever supporting the founding of such a state.