President, party heads tour cities under fire

Peres, Netanyahu, Livni offer vote of solidarity to residents in harm's way.

President Shimon Peres and political leaders visited rocket-plagued southern communities on Wednesday to offer a supportive ear to residents. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu were among those who came, visiting Ashkelon, Ashdod and Sderot to meet with children who have recently fallen within the rockets' range and journalists who are starting to ask what exactly Israel's goals are in Operation Cast Lead. Elections campaign? No. They came to express solidarity. First came Peres, who visited Ashkelon in the morning with heavy security and a cautious entourage. His visit and those of the other bigwigs were not for publication until they had left the area, out of the concern their presence would motivate Hamas to renew the rocket fire. In any case, Peres had to take cover twice, since two pairs of rockets interrupted his visit. The highlight was a kindergarten whose activity had been shifted underground to a bomb shelter. Peres tried to get the children's attention, asking them how they felt and where they were from, but they did not seem too interested. "We are in the bomb shelter to stay safe from the rockets," one boy answered the president and then got back to his game. Next, Peres tried to persuade them to sing a Hanukka song, but the children did not know the words. However, they became highly attentive when asked who watched Channel 2's Big Brother reality show. A Kassam warning siren kicked in, but it did not affect the children. "I like Bublil," one kid said, "but the big brother is stupid." Then a boy informed Peres that Ashkelon is a "fun city to live in, and is beautiful and many tourists visit it." "We also have the Ashkeluna water park," a girl said. "It's really beautiful here." Peres agreed with the children. Earlier, the president visited the Ashkelon Municipality's operations room, where he was updated on security. He continued to Barzilai Medical Center and had a chat with David Cohen, the brother of Religious Services Minister Yitzhak Cohen (Shas), who was lightly wounded by a Grad rocket on Tuesday night. The president told reporters: "The issue now is not the truce but stopping the terrorism. This is not the first time Israel has been attacked and I am convinced we have the power to act in the right way until the Gaza-periphery communities get some peace and quiet." Later on Wednesday it was Netanyahu's turn. He stopped in Ashdod first and then continued to Ashkelon with of bus full of foreign journalists and Israeli political correspondents. Netanyahu answered children's questions in an Ashkelon community center, and even agreed to hold a baby goat that was brought to the bomb shelter along with a bunch of pets for the children to play with. "I don't care if he is doing it because of an election campaign," said Doris Yatim, a secretary in the community center. "For half an hour I felt good, I felt that we are taken care of." Livni, who paid a solidarity visit to Beersheba and later arrived in Sderot to brief the foreign reporters, faced hard questions and critical tones. "Israel is acting against Hamas because it exploited the truce. Our goal in this operation is not to change the regime in Gaza but to change the equation," she said. When another reporter asked her why the Gaza border was closed to foreign journalists, she told her assistant in Hebrew, "I really prefer you answer this one." And he did. "This decision has been made by the Defense Ministry," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor. "Since Hamas targets the borders it is too dangerous for the operating teams to operate the border [crossings]. We don't want them to risk their lives, and the only exception is for humanitarian reasons." Livni who is scheduled to meet with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris on Thursday, said she was sure he would endorse her message. "I am going to ask Sarkozy and the international community to support Israel's operation and to be patient. This would be the victory of all of the normal world that wishes to eliminate terror," she said. "We are acting in order to have a sustainable achievement and to give us the possibility to live in peace and quiet here, unfortunately, by military means," Livni said.