(photo credit: Channel 10)
OC Southern Command Yoav Galant said he felt deep pain for the women, children, and other Palestinian civilians who were killed early Wednesday morning after an IDF shell apparently misfired and hit a home in Beit Hanun.
Still, Galant noted that there was as yet no absolute confirmation that all the civilians were killed by IDF shells, and that an investigation into the matter was still underway.
"The orders for IDF soldiers on the matter are clear, and they are taking everyone who is not involved out of the line of fire," he said, adding that "yesterday, Kassam rockets were fired from the area at Ashkelon. In the morning, there was a warning that they were supposed to fire more rockets. This shooting was a preventative shooting so this would not come to pass."
Earlier, Defense Minister Amir Peretz decided to halt IDF artillery fire directed at Kassam launch sites in the Gaza Strip until the completion of the investigation into the incident, which resulted in the death of 18 civilians in the northern Gaza town.
Chief of Staff, Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz appointed Maj.-Gen. Meir Klifi, deputy OC Ground Forces Command, to head the inquiry.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Peretz issued an apology for the killing of innocent civilians and offered the Palestinians humanitarian and medical assistance.
Government spokeswoman Miri Eisen said the IDF offensive in Gaza will continue despite the deadly incident "as long as Kassam rockets land in Israel, as long as the smuggling of weapons into the Gaza Strip continues, as long as the Hamas government chooses for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to continuously provoke Israel."
In a delayed reaction, the IDF admitted firing artillery at rocket launching sites in northern Gaza, but insisted it targeted an area "far removed" from the deadly impact.
"We fired at an area from where Kassam rockets are being launched at towns and villages in Israel. Only yesterday, eight (Gaza-made) Kassams were fired from there," Major Avital Leibovich said.
She said the military was expressing regret "in general" for any civilians hurt in Israeli operation, but would have to "check exactly" what had happened in this case. "We have no intention whatsoever of hurting uninvolved civilians," she said.
The army stressed, however, that the responsibility for any civilian casualties lies with the terrorist organizations, which use the civilian population as human shields and continue to carry out terror attacks and to launch Kassam rockets from the shelter of populated areas.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni also emphasized that Israel had no intention of harming innocent people, only defending its citizens.
Speaking to reporters at the start of an export conference in Tel Aviv, Livni said Israel had left Gaza to allow Palestinians to take control of terror groups and develop an independent life for themselves, but to everyone's great misfortune, this did not happen.
She emphasized that Israel has been subjected to non-stop terror attacks, including the firing of missiles at densely populated areas.