PM says nation was forced to respond to Hamas aggression; Netanyahu: Now is a time for unity.
By HERB KEINON
The IDF's Gaza Strip operation is intended to "bring about a fundamental improvement in the security situation in the South" and allow the citizens there to "lead normal lives," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Saturday night in an emergency address to the nation.
Olmert, flanked by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in a rare show of unity in the midst of an election campaign, called on the country to "show patience," saying this "could take time." Government officials were bracing for a situation in which Hamas could launch some 200 rockets and mortars a day.
The prime minister added that it was possible that "in the near future there will be a rise in the number of rockets and that these will reach farther" than they reached previously.
Government officials said the operation was intended to bring about a calm in the South that would include the following conditions: an end to rocket firing on Israel, an end to terrorist attacks from the Gaza Strip, an end to military activities in the region and an end to the arms smuggling from Egypt.
According to government sources, Israel was defining as its goals as "striking out at Hamas's infrastructure." It was not, however, saying that the goal of the operation was to topple Hamas or destroy the organization.
The operation's specified goals did not include the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit. Olmert, during his address, said that his heart was with the Schalit family and all others who were concerned about his fate.
Olmert also sent a thinly veiled warning to Hizbullah not to open up an additional front against Israel. "I hope that no other player in the region will think that at a time when Israel is fighting in the South, it is not attentive to what is happening on other fronts. We will not hesitate to respond to all attacks against us," he said.
Olmert said that the decision for the operation was taken at Wednesday's security cabinet meeting. The cabinet is to be briefed on the situation at its Sunday meeting.
While the White House released a statement saying that "Hamas must end its terrorist activities if it wishes to play a role in the future of the Palestinian people," and urging Israel to "avoid civilian casualties," it pointedly did not call for an immediate cessation to the IDF operation.
The United States on Saturday blamed Hamas for breaking a cease-fire and attacking Israel. It was "completely unacceptable" for Hamas, which controls Gaza, to launch attacks on Israel after a truce lasting several months, said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
"These people are nothing but thugs, so Israel is going to defend its people against terrorists like Hamas that indiscriminately kill their own people," Johndroe said in Texas as President George W. Bush spent the holidays at his ranch there. "They need to stop. We have said in the past that they have a choice to make. You can't have one foot in politics and one foot in terror."
Asked if the United States would back a continuation of the retaliatory strikes, Johndroe said: "The US doesn't want to see any more violence. I think what we've got to see is Hamas stop [sic] firing rockets into Israel. That's what precipitated this."
Despite harsher reactions from other world leaders including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and French President Nicholas Sarkozy, the feeling in Jerusalem was that there was a high degree of international understanding for Israel's actions, and that Israel had made a point of bringing nearly all the world leaders who had visited over the last few months to Sderot to see the situation on the ground first-hand. Livni is scheduled to take the ambassadors stationed in Israel to Sderot on Sunday for a tour of the area.
According to government officials, Israel was prepared to sustain some harsh international criticism over the next few days to achieve its aims.
Israel's ambassador to Egypt, Shalom Cohen, was called to the Foreign Ministry on Saturday to hear Egypt's formal protest. Despite these protests, and harsh words from Jordan as well, there was no indication that the two countries would recall their ambassadors as an act of protest, diplomatic sources said.
Indeed, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit, who met with Livni on Thursday, held a televised press conference Saturday in which he blasted the operation, but also placed the responsibility at Hamas's doorstep.
Israeli officials said that while the public criticism from the Arab world was expected, privately there was understanding for Israel's action and the hope that the IDF would deliver a substantial blow to Hamas. "What they are saying in public and in private is different," one source said.
Olmert, during his address, said that Israel's offer for quiet was answered by Hamas with mayhem, and that "our desire for calm was answered with terror."
Olmert, who on Thursday asked Gaza residents in an appeal during an interview with Al-Arabiya to get Hamas to stop the firing of rockets, turned to them again Saturday night, saying, "You are not our enemies."
Saying that Hamas was bringing a disaster upon both Palestinians and Israelis, he said that the targets selected Saturday were taken "with the intent of avoiding civilian casualties." He added that Israel would do its best to ease the lives of Gaza residents and allow humanitarian assistance despite the fighting.
Olmert thanked Likud head Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman and Meretz head Haim Oron for their support of the operation. "This is the time for all of us to unite," he said.
AP contributed to this report
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