JERUSALEM Israel has asked U.N. aid agencies how long it would take them to set up "humanitarian corridors" from Egypt to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip in the event of a broad Israeli offensive, Israeli officials said on Tuesday.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the assessments were part of Israel's stepped up "contingency planning" should such an operation be ordered to try to stop cross-border rocket fire by militants.
Israeli forces killed more than 120 Palestinians, about half identified by medical workers as civilians, in a five-day Gaza assault that ended on Monday before a visit to Israel and the West Bank by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Israel threatened to send troops back into the territory if rocket salvoes continued.
A sustained ground offensive would likely lead Israel to close its border crossings with the Gaza Strip, which Hamas Islamists seized by force in June after routing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's more secular Fatah forces.
In closed-door meetings, Israel asked the U.N. agencies specifically about the feasibility of opening aid corridors from the Egyptian town of El Arish to Gaza's Rafah border crossing with Egypt, a distance of about 30 km.
Aid agencies have warned Israel a major offensive could lead to a humanitarian crisis in the impoverished territory, where an Israeli-led economic blockade has already increased hardship.
Nearly 80 percent of Gazans are dependent on food aid, much of which comes from U.N. aid agencies.
Hamas blasted open the border at Rafah in January to allow hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to stock up on supplies in short supply, but the frontier has since been resealed.
"We cannot afford this kind of extreme Islamic state controlled by Hamas," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told diplomats, according to a statement.
"Israel left the Gaza Strip, by the way, not in order to come back. But we may find ourselves in a situation that we have no other alternative," she said.
A U.N. official told Reuters: "The U.N. has received no official request to prepare humanitarian corridors from Egypt to cope with the consequences of any major new Israeli offensive."
Asked if Israel was assessing the readiness of U.N. agencies, the official said: "There are indicators that Israel is assessing whether aid agencies are prepared for such an eventuality."
Israel largely shuttered its borders with Gaza to all but humanitarian supplies after Hamas seized the territory. Israel curtailed fuel supplies in January, but quickly eased the restrictions under Western pressure after the enclave's main power station shut down, leading to blackouts.
Israeli officials say they believe that allowing aid supplies through Egypt could help mitigate an international backlash to an all-out offensive. It could also advance Israel's goal of limiting its responsibility for the Gaza Strip.
Rice has been pushing for an agreement that would reopen the Rafah crossing under Abbas's control.
Israeli and European officials said one proposal under consideration would seek to open Rafah to cargo, as well as travellers.
But Egypt opposes any attempt by Israel to shift the burden for the Gaza Strip, and Hamas, which has control on the ground, wants a role in Rafah's future running.
(Editing by Alison Williams)