Olmert gives army free hand in Gaza

Israel Materials 18 February 2008 02:48 (UTC +04:00)

( AP ) - Israel's prime minister on Sunday gave his military a "free hand" to attack Gaza militants after a rocket slammed into a house in this town where the visiting U.N. humanitarian chief had just called for an end to the daily salvos.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he would not allow a humanitarian crisis to develop in Gaza, but the people there could not live normal lives while Israelis across the border were constantly targeted by rockets.

"We will reach out for anyone involved in perpetrating terrorism against Israelis, and we will not hesitate to attack them in order to stop them," he said. "That applies to everyone, first and foremost Hamas. Hamas is in charge of Gaza."

Olmert was speaking at a gathering of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem.

Early Sunday, Israeli ground forces backed by aircraft entered Gaza. Three Palestinian militants and a civilian were killed in clashes, and an Israeli soldier was seriously wounded. More than 20 people were wounded, including several gunmen and a 45-year-old civilian who was shot in the head, Palestinian health officials said.

The military said the target was the Gaza "terror infrastructure," and more than 80 Palestinians were taken for questioning.

John Holmes, the U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, had just left Sderot, where he made an appeal for an end to the rocket fire from Gaza, when a rocket exploded in a house there.

No one was seriously hurt. Medics took a shell-shocked woman from the house for treatment.

Sderot, a town of 20,000 less than half a mile from the Gaza fence, is battered by rockets almost every day. Twelve people have been killed in recent years and dozens more wounded, including an 8-year-old boy who lost a leg in an attack last week.

"We condemn absolutely the firing of these rockets. There's no justification for it. They are indiscriminate, there's no military target," Holmes told The Associated Press.

Israeli airstrikes and ground incursions into Gaza have killed dozens of militants in recent months but have failed to stop the rockets. Israeli leaders have warned that a broad ground operation is increasingly likely.

Holmes said Israel and the Palestinians must make peace.

"At the end of the day, the only thing that will make a lasting difference is a peace settlement," he said. "You can't stop these problems militarily. They have to be solved through negotiations."

Also visiting Israel on Sunday was French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who called on Israel and Hamas to negotiate a truce. "Hamas must stop firing, targeting (rockets) at Israel, and the Israeli people must answer," he told The Jerusalem Post newspaper.

Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai rejected talks with Hamas, saying it was a terror group that does not recognize Israel's right to exist. "For now, there is nothing to talk about," he told Army Radio.

Hamas, an Islamic militant group, seized Gaza by force in June.

Israel is trying to negotiate a peace agreement with the moderate West Bank-based government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Sunday that Abbas would meet Tuesday with Olmert. The two have had regular meetings, but no progress has been reported.

In his address Sunday, Olmert said Abbas agreed that the question of Jerusalem's status would be the last item on the agenda. "We will not start negotiations with the most sensitive issue that could end negotiations before we start," he said.

The two sides relaunched talks in November at a Mideast conference hosted by President Bush, setting a December 2008 target for reaching a final accord.

In his address, Olmert said one possibility is signing a declaration of principles, but insisted a peace accord cannot be implemented unless "terror is stopped completely from Gaza."

He said the current Palestinian leadership is committed to peace with Israel "like no Palestinian leadership before."