Olmert still restrained despite Kassams

PM fears a military response would weaken Abbas; Peretz urges action.

Kassam is jihad  298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Kassam is jihad 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
A harsh Israeli response to Palestinian infractions of the Gaza cease-fire would weaken Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and unite the warring Fatah and Hamas factions, officials in the Prime Minister's Office said, explaining Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's decision to continue with his "policy of restraint" despite an additional six Kassam rockets fired on Thursday. The continuation of the restraint policy comes amid increasing calls from cabinet ministers, including Defense Minister Amir Peretz, for Israel to respond to the infractions. Peretz, in a meeting with Olmert on Thursday, called on the prime minister to reevaluate the policy, saying that Israel could not tolerate a situation where Palestinian terrorists responsible for rocket attacks were given immunity by a cease-fire "We cannot gamble with the lives of Israeli citizens," Peretz told Olmert. Later in the day, Peretz convened a meeting with top defense officials to discuss the escalation on the Gaza front. Nevertheless, officials in the Prime Minister's Office said that for the time being there would not be a change of policy. Officials in Olmert's office contacted their colleagues in Abbas's office and warned, however, that Israel would have no choice but to respond if Kassam rockets continued to fall on the western Negev. Six Kassam rockets were fired on Thursday, and 10 the day before. Four of the rockets fell in the western Negev, one of them near a school and another near the community center in Sderot, and two others veered off course and struck a home in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanun, moderately wounding a Palestinian boy who was sleeping in his bedroom. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the rocket attacks. National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Industry and Trade Minister Eli Yishai joined Peretz in the call to end the policy of restraint. Yishai said that the "policy of restraint should not be sanctified," and that the security cabinet needed to meet and determine the point beyond which Israel would no longer remain passive. Ben-Eliezer said that while he favored restraint in the past, the current situation where rockets were fired everyday "cannot continue." He said Israel was obligated to protect its citizens, and should tell the Palestinians and the world "that the policy of restraint has ended. Israel will act against all those threatening its security." Senior defense officials said Thursday that Israel's lack of response to the attacks could be perceived by the Palestinians as a weakness. "We need to reevaluate the policy of restraint," said one official. "We cannot let these attacks continue without any response." Officials in the Prime Minister's Office said that the terrorists were trying to provoke an Israeli response in order to unify the warring Hamas and Fatah factions against the IDF. The officials further said that a response would give more support on the street to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and weaken Abbas. The officials also said that considerably fewer Kassam rockets were being fired now than a few weeks ago when the IDF was taking significant military action. At the same time, the officials said that Abbas was warned that Israel could not retrain itself in the face of this fire indefinitely, and that he should do what he could to quell the fire. The Jerusalem Post, meanwhile, learned Thursday that the Southern Command, under Maj.-Gen, Yoav Galant, has used the past several weeks since the cease-fire to draw up military plans for major ground incursions in the Gaza Strip. One of the plans involves reoccupying the Philadelphi Corridor in the southern Gaza Strip, which is believed by the IDF to cover up dozens of tunnels used to smuggle weapons from the Sinai into the Gaza Strip. Officials in the Prime Minister's Office said no date had yet been set for a long-awaited meeting between Olmert and Abbas, even though Abbas told Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema in Ramallah that a meeting would be held by the beginning of the year. One of the issues that has been holding up the meeting is Abbas's demand that the meeting be accompanied by the release of Palestinian prisoners, something Olmert has indicated he would not do until captured Cpl. Gilad Shalit was returned. Officials in the Prime Minister's Office reiterated that no Palestinians prisoners would be released until Shalit was let go, and that no date had been set for convening a meeting of a newly established Israeli-Palestinian steering committee to go over the names of prisoners for possible release. In a related development, Olmert phoned President George W. Bush Thursday to wish him a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, and during the 20-minute phone conversation discussed developments on the Palestinian track, Iran and Olmert's recent meetings with European leaders and Jordan's King Abdullah.