Israel will respond in a "harsh and severe" manner to the barrage of Kassam attacks on Sderot
, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided Wednesday, essentially putting an end to Israel's policy of restraint that has been in effect for more than six months.
The decision to significantly ratchet up Israel's response was made at a high level meeting Olmert convened with Defense Minister Amir Peretz, Foreign Minster Tzipi Livni, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head Yuval Diskin and senior IDF and security officials.
Defense officials said after the meeting that targeted assassinations would be renewed, though at this point they would not be directed against Hamas political leaders, but rather against those actively involved in terrorism. Throughout the day, 21 Kassams were fired at Israel, bringing the total number of rockets fired into Israel since Tuesday to over 40.
At the same time, government officials said that a widespread ground operation was not likely, though short-term ground forays into Gaza after specific targets was a possibility.
Following the meeting, the Prime Minister's Office put out a statement saying that it was decided to approve a "series of actions aimed at hitting the Kassam rocket launchers and their commanders, to disrupt their ability to fire the rockets and to damage the terrorist infrastructure."
During the meeting Olmert said that Israel could no longer show restraint in the face of the recurrent attacks. "The Hamas government is behind the terrorist action, and it is inconceivable that at the same time it is trying to get international recognition and financial assistance," he said.
Israel's response to the Kassam attacks was already felt Wednesday when the Air Force bombed a Hamas military installation in Rafah, the first such air strike since Israel accepted the Palestinian ceasefire in November. At least four Hamas members were killed and 30 others were wounded, some buried under the sandy rubble. Later in the day, IAF missiles struck a car carrying a Kassam squad moments after it had launched rockets at Sderot. At least one Hamas operative was killed.
A 70-year-old Sderot woman was seriously wounded Wednesday evening after three Kassam rockets were fired into Sderot with one scoring a direct hit on her home. Magen David Adom medics also treated several residents who were suffering from shock. The elderly woman was evacuated to Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz ordered the Home Front Command and the Defense Ministry to set up a headquarters near Sderot and to begin coordinating plans for the evacuation of Gaza-belt communities under rocket fire. Defense officials said that Peretz did not intend to begin evacuating Sderot but that it was important to refresh the plans to allow for their immediate implementation.
Under the influence of the Winograd Committee's interim report, Livni was invited to the consultations, something that happened only sporadically in the past. She urged those present to define Israel's goals, and then see whether or not they could be reached through diplomatic action.
Livni has been active on the phones over the last two days, talking to a wide array of world leaders in an attempt to drum up international understanding and legitimacy for Israeli military action inside Gaza.
Livni told reporters Wednesday that her message was that while Israel had shown a great deal of restraint up until now, it could not accept a situation where its citizens were attacked because of internal Palestinian disagreements.
Regarding the traumatized residents of Sderot, Olmert directed the Home Front and various government bodies to tend to their needs. At the same time, he expressed opposition to billionaire Arcadi Gaydamak's dispatch of busses to the city to take residents to hotels in Beersheba, even as Peretz said that the government could not just sit back and watch as Gaydamak does this.
Olmert said he was opposed to the evacuation of Sderot's residents. "Those are precisely the pictures Hamas wants to see," he said, adding, "I don't want to give a victory to terrorism."