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AFP | October 30, 2006

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned that the army was preparing an extensive operation in the Gaza Strip, with the government to make a decision on the offensive within days, an MP has said.

"The army is preparing for an even more extensive operation in the Gaza Strip," the prime minister was quoted by the source as telling parliament's defence and foreign affairs committee.

"The government intends to reach a decision on the exact pattern of the operation in the coming days," Olmert was reported to have said.

At least 260 Palestinians, many of them civilians, have been killed since current operations began late last June.

A government spokeswoman later tried to downplay Olmert's comments, insisting that Israel would continue along its current tack and that no significant tactical shift was afoot.

"Israel is determined to fight terror, not differently but continuously," spokeswoman Miri Eisen, who was inside the committee meeting while Olmert spoke, told AFP. "We won't change our mode of operation in the Gaza Strip and we will not go back to Gaza. We intend to continue our operation there and carry out pinpoint operations."

The prime minister reiterated insistence from top Israeli officials that the government had no intention of keeping troops in the Palestinian territory permanently after last year's historic withdrawal.

"We will operate in the Gaza Strip but we do not intend to stay there permanently," the committee member quoted Olmert as saying.

Officials have repeatedly warned that Israel will intensify its four-month-old offensive, launched in late June after Gaza-based militants seized an Israeli soldier and killed two others in a cross-border raid.

Cabinet ministers have recently called for the military campaign to be stepped up, including seizing control of the Gaza-Egyptian border to stem an alleged flow of smuggled weapons.

Olmert said Israel is also working to strengthen the hand of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, whose Fatah faction Israelis hope can counter the growing influence of the ruling Islamists Hamas.

"The IDF (army) is continuing its activity against terror activity in the Gaza Strip and at the same time continues humanitarian aid to help Abu Mazen (Abbas)," Olmert said, according to committee member Ran Cohen.

Towards that end, Olmert said Israel was considering whether or not to approve the deployment of the Bader Force, a Palestinian militia loyal to Abbas currently based in Jordan, to the Palestinian territories.

"If an additional force could strengthen Abu Mazen such as the Bader Force, Israel will consider its deployment favourably if it does not harm our security," Olmert said, according to Cohen.

Olmert claimed Israel has killed 300 Gaza militants since the start of the operation, other committee members said. An AFP count, however, puts the number of dead Palestinians at 260, along with two Israeli soldiers, since the offensive began on June 28.

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