Gaza operation is nearing-Israeli defence minister

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JERUSALEM, Sep 26 (Reuters) Israel is ''getting closer'' to carrying out a sweeping military operation in the Gaza Strip to counter Palestinian rocket attacks, Defence Minister Ehud Barak said on Wednesday.

But Barak said any operation is not likely to be ''simple'' in terms of the number of forces involved and the amount of time it might last.

In fresh attacks on Wednesday, militants in the Hamas-run territory said they fired more than 12 rockets at the southern Israeli town of Sderot.

Israel responded with an air strike on two launchers and sent an armoured force into the Gaza Strip in what local residents described as a limited incursion close to the border. No casualties were reported by either side.

''We are getting closer to carrying out a widespread operation in Gaza which for many reasons has not taken place in the past weeks,'' Barak said on Israel's Army Radio.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has come under pressure from Sderot residents and right-wing politicians to order a massive ground operation in the Gaza Strip.

But several Israeli cabinet ministers have cautioned that such a campaign could lead to heavy casualties among Israeli forces and Palestinians in the densely populated coastal territory where 1.5 million people live.

''It must be clear that an operation of this type is not simple, not in terms of the forces and the amount of time which we will have to stay there or in terms of the operational challenges which the troops will have to meet,'' Barak said.

An Israeli military push into the Gaza Strip in the coming weeks could also complicate plans for a US-sponsored Middle East peace conference expected to take place in November in the Washington area.

Last week, Israel declared Gaza an ''enemy entity'' in response to frequent rocket fire -- which rarely cause deaths but has a powerful impact on life along the border -- and said it would reduce fuel and power supplies to the territory.

It has yet to take such actions, which UN officials and human rights groups have said would be illegal under international law pertaining to occupied territories.

Israel pulled troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip in 2005 after 38 years of occupation. Palestinians say the territory is still effectively under occupation because Israel controls its borders, waters and airspace.

REUTERS JK PM1818

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