(Communicated by the Cabinet Secretariat)

At the weekly Cabinet meeting today (Sunday), 16 May 2004:

1. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon commented on recent events in the Gaza Strip:

"In the Gaza Strip, our soldiers are fighting heroically, with dedication and proficiency against Palestinian terror that also threatens Israel itself.  In the Zeitoun neighborhood, our units succeeded in eliminating laboratories and factories for manufacturing Kassam rockets aimed at Ashkelon, Sderot, Nirim, Kisufim, Nahal Oz, Mefalsim, Nir Am and beyond.

Along the Philadelphi route, fighting took place in order to strike at this terror’s oxygen line.  We will not allow Palestinian terror to attain the capabilities to which it aspires, and threaten the heart of the country even after the disengagement from Gaza.

We share in the grief of the families of the soldiers who fell and in the pain of the IDF family."

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz briefed ministers on recent security matters and said that Israel is passing through difficult days because it is in the nature of violent conflict, similar to the war on terror that Israel has been waging for the past 3.5 years, that there will be such times.

Events in the Zeitoun neighborhood and along the Philadelphia-Rafiah corridor, in which 13 fighters have been killed, are a series of tragic events that cut a series of impressive security establishment successes in the Gaza Strip.

Defense Minister Mofaz expressed deep appreciation for IDF soldiers and the personnel of IDF Rabbinate for dedicating themselves to the supreme priority of bringing the soldiers who fell for a proper burial; thus the IDF acted in both sectors. Defense Minister Mofaz made it clear that the operational activity, in the framework of which the soldiers fell, is urgent and necessary in the war on terror.

Defense Minister Mofaz stressed that Gaza is not Lebanon; apart from the settlement aspects, in the security sphere, in Gaza, Israel has operational freedom of movement to act everywhere in order to strike hard at the terrorist organizations.  The IDF is intensely investigating events.

Defense Minister Mofaz said, "In these difficult moments, while we are still engaged in combat, I call on the Israeli people to maintain unity and back the IDF and its commanders and fighters."

IDF Chief-of-Staff Lt.-Gen. Moshe Ya’alon briefed ministers on the atrocious terror attack on the Hatuel family, on the events in the Zeitoun neighborhood and the Philadelphia corridor, and on the IDF operations in those areas.

Foreign Minister Shalom briefed ministers on diplomatic matters and said that US Secretary of State Colin Powell telephoned him to express his disgust at last week’s events in the Zeitoun neighborhood and to express his condolences to the Israeli government and the Israeli people.

Foreign Minister Shalom said that an UNRWA ambulance was caught transporting terrorists in the area of the Philadelphi corridor.  The Foreign Minister stated that this is an additional proof of the terrorist organizations’ cynical manipulation by the humanitarian aid given to them.  Following Israeli diplomatic pressure, UNRWA announced an internal investigation into the incident.  The Foreign Minister also announced that he plans to call on UN Secretary Kofi Annan to begin an external investigation into the behavior of this agency regarding this incident, and in every matter relating to Palestinian terror.

Foreign Minister Shalom reported that US President Bush had sent a letter to the Palestinian Prime Minister in which he reiterated his support for the disengagement plan.

Foreign Minister Shalom noted that the US placed sanctions on Syria last week in the framework of the "Syria Accountability Act" and that the US House of Representatives approved a proposal for a decision regarding Iran in which it condemned its nuclear weapons development program.

Foreign Minister Shalom remarked that Egypt continues to fulfill a positive role, in its attempts to encourage the Palestinians to act against terror in Gaza, and noted the important role that Cairo played in returning parts of IDF soldiers’ bodies to Israel for proper burial.