Israel warns of tougher operation if truce agreement violated

Israel warns of tougher operation if truce agreement violated

An Israeli minister said Thursday that Hamas can expect an aggravated military response in the event that it or other militant groups in the Gaza Strip resume rocket attacks on Israel, Xinhua reported.

"We will take much tougher steps in the next round, with the understanding of the world," Minister of Intelligence and Atomic Energy Dan Meridor said at a press conference in Jerusalem less than 24 hours after a fragile Egyptian-brokered ceasefire ended the worst cross-border hostilities in years.

Israeli media on Thursday took stock of an eight-day military operation that sought to quell incessant rocket fire: six fatalities, most of them civilians, and 240 wounded by salvos that totaled 1,500 projectiles, damage to homes and public structures and military expenditures estimated at hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars.

The military said aircraft and artillery struck 1,600 militant targets, mainly rocket launchers, as well as 200 weapons smuggling tunnels, 25 weapons manufacturing facilities and depots, command and control centers, and Hamas' stockpiles of long-range missiles.

Thirty militants, seven of whom served in senior command posts, were killed in the operation launched last Wednesday with the assassination of Hamas military chief Ahmed al-Jaabari.

"We wanted to deal a blow that would make them rethink ( launching rockets into Israel). This limited goal was fully achieved, although the outcome is yet to be seen," Meridor said.

He noted that Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad's combined arsenal of 10,000 rockets was significantly depleted. "Several thousand are not there anymore, but it's not just the number but quality: the longer-range projectiles, the Fajr-5s,were badly hit in the first days of the operation," Meridor said. "I'm not playing down the psychological damage (incurred by Israeli civilians), but there was very little damage in terms of human life.

"Hamas said a week ago that the 'gates of hell' had opened. If that's what they achieved, then hell must not be such a bad place, " said Meridor.

The remarks echoed those of Israel's top leadership, which hailed the "Operation Pillar of Defense," a great success.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a televised news conference Wednesday evening in which he announced the ceasefire deal, said militant factions had assumed that Israel would avoid offensive action.

"They were wrong. We hit their senior commanders, destroyed thousands of rockets which were aimed towards the South and we crushed Hamas' command facilities," the prime minister said.

"All our objectives were reached," Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Thursday morning in summing up the operation.

Barak had played a pivotal role in heated deliberations within the Forum of Three -- comprised of Netanyahu, himself and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman -- that ultimately led to the decision to accept the terms of the Egyptian-mediated truce.

The defense minister opposed Lieberman's demand to expand the operation with a ground incursion into Gaza, even on a limited scale, in order to restore Israel's power of deterrence, with Netanyahu vacillating between the positions advocated by the two, according to a Thursday report in the Ha'aretz daily.

Israel, in exchange for a complete halt to the rocket fire, agreed to refrain from targeted killings of Hamas members. And Israel will demand a halt to the smuggling of weapons into Gaza.

Hamas, for its part, will seek a removal of the naval blockade imposed on the coastal enclave and the removal of limitations on the movement of people and goods via land crossings to and from Gaza.

"There is a very intimate, very good cooperation between us and America on the smuggling," Meridor said. "There has to be a change of attitude regarding this issue."

Commenting on the possibility that one of a host of militant groups active in Gaza could attempt to reignite violence in defiance of Hamas,the minister said Israel holds the Islamist group responsible for upholding the ceasefire.

"They should act as the party in control and take action to see that no one there attacks us. If they want to act as a government, let them see to it," Meridor said.

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