Israel to renew attacks against Gaza
JERUSALEM – Israel decided on Wednesday to resume pinpoint attacks against Palestinian rocket-launching cells in the Gaza Strip, jeopardizing what is already a shaky, month-old truce with Gaza militants.The decision came hours after a Palestinian rocket seriously wounded two Israeli teenage boys in Sderot, a town in southern Israel close to the Gaza border. Shortly after the new policy was announced, a rocket was fired from Gaza but no injuries were reported.Although Israel said it remains committed to the truce, the decision to strike against rocket launchers clearly raises tensions.It also could undermine Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s recent efforts to bolster the moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who is in a standoff with Hamas. The Islamic militant group controls the Palestinian parliament and Cabinet.”The defense establishment has been instructed to take pinpoint action against the rocket-launching cells,” Olmert’s office said after a morning meeting of senior officials. “At the same time, Israel will continue to abide by the cease-fire.”Hamas government spokeswoman Ghazi Hamad denounced the Israeli decision to “continue their aggression.”But he added, “We still believe that this agreement is alive, and both sides should respect this agreement because it is (in) the interest (of) our people.”Palestinian militants violated the truce within an hour after it took effect on Nov. 26, and by the military’s count, have launched more than 60 rockets at southern Israel since then.Israel has so far refrained from responding, but Olmert had warned in recent days that his patience was wearing thin. Olmert has come under intense pressure from residents of Sderot, political opponents and members of his own Cabinet to take action against the rockets.The army said the rocket fired on Wednesday landed in Palestinian territory, but Israel Radio said it landed in an open field in Sderot, causing no injuries or damage. Islamic Jihad militants claimed responsibility.Most of the crude weapons have been launched by Islamic Jihad, a radical group backed by Iran that does not participate in Palestinian politics.Abu Hamza, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad, said the group was not moved by Olmert’s threat.”Any harm to our leaders will be met with a harsh response,” he said. Hamza said the rocket fire was a response to Israeli arrests of militants in the West Bank, which is not covered by the truce.The truce ended five months of deadly fighting that followed an attack by Hamas-linked gunmen on an Israeli army post just outside Gaza. Two soldiers were killed and another was captured in that raid, and Israel retaliated by sending ground troops, artillery and aircraft to strike at militants and their rocket squads.But the incursions failed to stop the rocket fire or win the release of the captured soldier. When Abbas, a moderate who favors peace talks, persuaded militant factions to agree to a truce, Olmert agreed to pull Israeli forces out of Gaza.Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said continued commitment to the truce and the renewal of pinpoint operations were not mutually exclusive.”As long as operations are prudent and pinpointed, there is no reason for things to degenerate,” Livni said at a joint news conference in Jerusalem with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.The policy shift would allow Israel to act pre-emptively against militants planning a specific attack – something it refrained from doing over the past month, she said.Israel’s policy of renewed retaliation could undo progress toward bolstering Abbas against his Hamas rivals. Olmert and Abbas met on Saturday for their first working meeting, and Olmert pledged to ease restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza as a gesture to the Palestinian president.Government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said Israel would forge ahead with the plans as scheduled.Egypt has played a major role in negotiating between Israel and the Palestinians, and on Wednesday, Aboul Gheit urged Israel to continue to moderate its actions.”We oppose the Qassam (rocket) attacks on Israel … (but) we hope that Israel will continue to show restraint,” he said. “We need to continue with the peace process because that is the way to progress.”Egypt has also been trying to negotiate the release of the soldier captured by the Palestinian militants, Cpl. Gilad Shalit. At his news conference with Livni, he told reporters that “we are sure that he (Shalit) is still alive.”Shalit has not been seen or heard from since Gaza militants seized him in a cross-border raid on June 25, though Israeli officials have said they believe the soldier is safe.”What he said is nothing new,” said Noam Shalit, the soldier’s father. “I hope there is more behind it. … I wish we could know more.”Aboul Gheit was in Jerusalem laying the groundwork for a Jan. 4 meeting between Olmert and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik.
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