Israelis temporarily hold off Gaza ground attack

ISRAELI ministers have decided to hold off from launching a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip to give Egyptian-led truce efforts a chance to work, a senior Israeli official said late on Tuesday.

''A decision was taken that for the time being there is a temporary hold on the ground incursion to give diplomacy a chance to succeed,'' he said after a late-night meeting of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's key ministers, the forum of nine.

''They discussed both the state of the diplomacy and the military operation,'' the Israeli official said. He said Israel was prepared to send in the troops if an agreement wasn't reached.

The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit Israel, Egypt and Ramallah, as the United States pushes to avoid an escalation of the Gaza crisis.

Meanwhile Arab League ministers were due to arrive early on Wednesday in the war-torn strip for the latest in a string of solidarity visits.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel of ''ethnic cleansing'' in Gaza, saying the air raids could not be considered self defence. ''Israel is committing ethnic cleansing by ignoring peace in this region and violating international law,'' Mr Erdogan said. ''It is occupying the Palestinian territory step by step.''


Palestinians fired 67 rockets into Israel yesterday, according to the Israel Defence Forces, and Israel continued its attacks on Hamas and related targets in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas is considered a terrorist group by Israel, the US and the European Union.

Israeli warplanes struck the Islamic National Bank in Gaza City in a midnight sortie, devastating the Hamas-owned lender that the group uses to pay the salaries of its 35,000 employees. Earlier, Ramez Harb, a senior figure in Islamic Jihad's military wing, the al-Quds Brigades, was killed in an Israeli air strike on a high-rise building, where international media organisations have offices, the group said.

Growing diplomatic pressure came as rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas agreed to end their infighting in a show of solidarity over the spiralling Gaza crisis.

At the UN, days after the outbreak of hostilities, the Security Council has remained silent on the escalating violence in Gaza.

As an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire plan took shape at indirect negotiations in Cairo between Israel and a Hamas team, a stream of top-level diplomats headed for the region.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon, who was in Cairo, will meet Israeli President Shimon Peres and Mrs Clinton will break away from an Asia visit to travel to Israel, Egypt and the West Bank.

Palestinian officials said Mrs Clinton was expected to visit Ramallah on Wednesday morning for talks with the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel was building up its ground forces along the Gaza border, ready to go in if required, the Israeli official said.

''Preparations for the ground incursion continue,'' he said.

A statement from the Knesset, Israel's parliament, said its Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee would meet during the day to rubber stamp a request by Defence Minister Ehud Barak to raise to 75,000 the number of army reservists he can call up, in a move already approved by the cabinet. AGENCIES