(photo credit: AP)
The day after dramatically ratcheting up Israel's military response to Kassam fire, the government Thursday looked both inward and abroad, launching a high-profile policy to "hug" Sderot residents, and stepping up efforts to gain international legitimacy for military steps.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert paid a surprise visit to Sderot late Thursday evening, as part of the campaign to embrace the city, boost morale and tell its residents that their perseverance in the face of the Kassam attacks was critical for Israel.
During the visit, Olmert met with a number of families who have been wounded in the attack, and went to Defense Minister Amir Peretz's home, where he met with Mayor Eli Moyal.
The new policy of trying to strengthen the morale of the residents came on the same day that the Defense Ministry evacuated some 800 hardship cases from Sderot to local facilities run by the Association for Soldiers' Welfare. Scenes of mayhem broke out in Sderot when it became obvious that not everyone who wanted to leave would be able to do so.
In addition to the 880 residents who were evacuated on Thursday, some 1,600 were given vacations in other parts of the country by billionaire Arkadi Gaydamak.
The government official stressed that the Defense Ministry was not evacuating the residents, but rather giving them "a couple of days off" to regain their strength "and then return."
The policy of giving Sderot residents a high-profile embrace right now is intended to deprive Hamas of a sense of victory for sowing panic among the citizens and forcing them to board busses and flee.
"The idea now is to give them a strong sense that the government is with them, doing what is needed to help them, backing them and understanding their dilemma," the official said. "They need to be hugged, not helped to leave. They need to be given a sense of purpose, a sense that we are helping them. They also need to be told that Sderot is not the first, nor will it be the last, place to go through difficulties in this country."
Meanwhile, officials in the Prime Minister's Office, as well as Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, launched a full-court press to explain to the international community that Israel's actions in Gaza were legitimate defensive actions intended to protect the citizens of the western Negev.
A source in the Prime Minister's Office said that there has been constant communication over the last couple of days between Olmert's office and the White House, and that Israel has a sense that the US "understands" Israel's actions.
Livni, in a conversation with her German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said that in the absence of any active efforts by the international community to stop the rocket fire on Sderot, Israel would act to "bring an end to the attacks." She said that Israel expected the EU to be involved in diplomatic efforts to stop them.
Stressing the trauma that overshadowed Sderot residents' lives, Livni told Steinmeier, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU, that the international community needed to stand by by Israel and condemn Hamas.
The EU did indeed issue such a statement, saying that it was "deeply concerned" about the intra-Palestinian violence and condemned "in the strongest possible terms the Kassam missile attacks launched from the Gaza Strip against Israeli territory...and appeals to Palestinian leaders to do everything in their power to stop them. An escalation of violence must prevented."
Later, at a meeting with kibbutz business leaders, Livni said that Israel had to "ask itself what the most effective tool was to stop the Kassam fire on Israel."
She said that Israel had both military and diplomatic options in its "tool box."
"We need to send a message to the Palestinians that terrorism has a price. The Palestinian government is responsible for this aggressive attack, and they have chosen not to control it," she said.
Livni is scheduled to hold a briefing Friday morning with foreign diplomats in Israel.