JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert instructed the army yesterday to resume "pinpoint" attacks against militants firing rockets from the Gaza Strip, abandoning a policy of restraint in light of repeated Palestinian violations of a month-old cease-fire.
But in a statement that appeared to rule out a large-scale return of ground troops to Gaza, Israel said it remains committed to the truce and would work with the Palestinian leadership "so that immediate steps are taken" to halt the rain of crude Kassam rockets.
The decision reflected conflicting pressures on Olmert. Just four days earlier, with U.S. encouragement, he had opened negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and was worried that escalating violence could spoil the first joint effort in nearly two years to revive talks on a final peace settlement.
Yet with an average of two rockets falling each day in or near Israeli cities, he was facing rising criticism from Israeli citizens, defense officials and members of his Cabinet who demanded retaliation.
Olmert acted after eight rockets landed in Israel on Tuesday, the most fired in one day since the truce was declared Nov. 26. One of the rockets wounded two 14-year-old boys in Sederot, the town on the Gaza border that has suffered most of the attacks.
"The defense establishment has been instructed to take pinpoint action against the rocket-launching cells," said the statement issued by Olmert's office after he met yesterday with Defense Minister Amir Peretz and senior military officials. "At the same time, Israel will continue to abide by the cease-fire."
Most of the rockets, including the one that wounded the two boys, have been fired by Islamic Jihad, a radical group backed by Iran that does not participate in Palestinian politics. In a statement yesterday, the group said it would continue firing rockets in retaliation for attacks on its militants in the West Bank, where the truce is not in effect and where Israeli soldiers have killed 14 Palestinians in the past month.
Meanwhile, Egypt moved yesterday to keep the Israeli-Palestinian talks on track. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a frequent mediator between the two sides, received Abbas in Cairo and sent his foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, to meet in Jerusalem with Olmert.
Olmert is to meet with Mubarak in Egypt next Thursday.
Speaking to reporters in Cairo, Abbas said he proposed in his meeting with Mubarak that the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia - the so-called Quartet of Middle East peace facilitators - take part in further talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
He said such contacts should be "back-channel talks," held out of the public spotlight, aimed at reviving the substantive peace talks that broke down six years ago.
The late November cease-fire ended five months of fighting that followed a June attack by Hamas-affiliated gunmen on an Israeli army post just outside the Gaza Strip. Two Israeli soldiers were killed and another was captured in that raid. Israel sent ground troops, artillery and aircraft to strike at the militants and their rocket squads.
But the incursions failed to stop the firing of homemade rockets from lightweight mobile launchers or to win the release of the soldier, Cpl. Gilead Shalit. His fate is now tied to a prisoner swap Egypt is trying to arrange. When Abbas persuaded Hamas and some other militant factions to accept a truce, Olmert pulled Israeli forces out of Gaza.
Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times.