Israel Threatens Strong Response to Gaza Rockets


JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Ehud Olmert threatened painful retaliation against Gaza militants Sunday for rockets still hitting Israel, six weeks after its military halted an offensive that was supposed to have stopped them for good.

The Israeli military says Palestinians have launched over 110 rockets and mortar shells at Israel since the Gaza offensive ended Jan. 18. On Saturday, seven rockets flew from Gaza into Israel, including one that crashed into an empty high school in the coastal city of Ashkelon. There were no injuries.

When Israel halted the offensive, Olmert said, "we took into account the possibility that shooting by the terrorist organizations might resume."

The rockets, he said, "will be answered with a painful, harsh, strong and uncompromising response from the security forces." Olmert spoke at the weekly Cabinet meeting. The military will decide on a response, government officials said afterward.

Many Israelis believe the Gaza operation ended too soon, leaving Hamas in power in Gaza and seemingly undaunted. One of them is hard-line Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's incoming prime minister, who is currently working to cobble together a new ruling coalition and is likely to replace Olmert within weeks.

Israel and Hamas have failed so far to reach a long-term truce through Egyptian mediation. So far, Israel has responded to the rocket fire with airstrikes targeting smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border through which Hamas has smuggled some of its weaponry.

Some in Israel's military blame the government for squandering any deterrent advantage won by the devastating three-week operation.

On Monday, top diplomats from around the world will convene in Egypt for an international conference on the strip's reconstruction, with the Palestinians seeking $2.8 billion in aid.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is making her first Mideast visit to attend the donors' conference, at which the U.S. is expected to pledge $900 million. She will then continue to Israel and the West Bank.

A number of high-profile foreign officials have visited Gaza since the offensive, in a sign of increasing international involvement in the long-isolated territory. Former British prime minister Tony Blair, currently an international Mideast envoy, was touring Gaza on Sunday — his first visit since being appointed to the job in 2007.

But none met with officials from Hamas, ostracized by most of the international community as a terror group.

International aid will not be able to move ahead without a firm truce between Israel and Hamas, but Egyptian-mediated talks between the sides have yielded no results.

Hamas wants Israel to open Gaza's blockaded border crossings, without which any major rebuilding will be impossible. Israel says it will do so only after Hamas releases an Israeli soldier it has held since 2006.

Another stumbling block is the feud between Hamas and the more moderate West Bank-based government of President Mahmoud Abbas. International donors largely refuse to funnel aid through Hamas, preferring instead to deal with Abbas. The billions of dollars in donor funds hanging in the balance have spurred new reconciliation talks between the two Palestinian factions.

Israel itself is in the midst of political uncertainty. Olmert is currently a caretaker prime minister in the aftermath of last month's election, which saw gains by Netanyahu's Likud and other hard-line parties.

Netanyahu's new government could consist of an alliance of hard-line and Orthodox parties opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state, which could set Israel up for a clash with the U.S. administration.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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