'We won’t tolerate rockets on Negev'

Official responds to escalation in South; Mashaal meets with terrorist leaders.

Dog approaches Kassam 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Dog approaches Kassam 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Israel will not allow a recurrence to the state that existed before Operation Cast Lead, when constant rocket and mortar fire rained on the western Negev from the Gaza Strip, a senior government official said on Saturday night in response to the escalating violence in the South.
“We are determined not to return to such a reality,” he said.
The official’s comments followed calls for restraint from around the world, including the US, France and Britain.
Hamas head Khaled Mashaal, meeting with senior members of Palestinian terrorist groups in Damascus, hinted at widening the confrontation, saying, “we will do everything to obtain the rights stolen from us, including confrontation with the enemy.”
On Friday, Regional Development Minister Silvan Shalom (Likud) told Israel Radio that if the rocket fire did not stop, Israel would have to increase the level of military activity and “step up [its] actions against Hamas.”
“We won’t allow frightened children to again be raised in bomb shelters, and so, in the end, it will force us to launch another military operation. I hope we can avoid it, but it is one of the options we have, and if we have no choice, we will use it in the near future,” he said.
About 20 rockets were fired at Israel in March, including one that killed Mane Singauephon, a Thai worker, in the worst violence since the end of Operation Cast Lead in January 2009.
On March 26, two Golani Brigade soldiers, Maj. Eliraz Peretz and St.-Sgt. Maj. Ilan Sviatkovsky, were killed in the southern Gaza Strip after they spotted men placing what seemed to be bombs near the fence and crossed into the Palestinian side.
US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, when asked about the air strikes in response to the rocket attacks, said that while he didn’t know the “predicate” for the Israeli action, “The Israelis have a right to self-defense.”
“At the same time,” he added, “as we have said many times, we don’t ultimately think that there is a military solution to this. It’s why we have been pressing the Palestinians and the Israelis to get into proximity talks that can lead to direct negotiations.”
Crowley said the US was always concerned that “steps taken by either side, legitimate or otherwise, can be misconstrued, can be twisted, and end up causing turbulence that can be an impediment to progress. So our message remains to the Israelis and Palestinians that we need to get the proximity talks going, focus on the substance, move to direct negotiations, and ultimately arrive at a settlement that ends the conflict once and for all.”
Crowley, however, reiterated at the press briefing that the US government had no intention of meeting Hamas representatives, after a Wall Street Journal report on Friday that several high-profile former US officials, some with close ties to the Obama administration, met with Hamas leaders in recent months, raising hopes inside Hamas, according to the paper, that its views were being heard at the White House.
Last summer in Zurich, Thomas Pickering, a former US ambassador to Israel and Jordan, and Rob Malley, a top Mideast adviser to president Bill Clinton and foreign policy adviser to Obama during his presidential campaign, met with Hamas “Foreign Minister” Mahmoud Zahar and Osama Hamdan, Hamas’s top official in Lebanon, the report stated.
Also according to the story, US diplomat Rachel Schneller, on sabbatical from the State Department and currently at the Council of Foreign Relations, met with Hamdan in Doha last month for a debate sponsored by Al-Jazeera.
The Journal quoted Schneller as saying she had alerted the State Department and received approval.
“They gave me permission to go, which I found interesting,” she said.The paper added that after the debate she met Hamdan over tea.
Crowley said Pickering and Malley were private individuals holdingprivate meetings. “They were not conveying any particular message fromthe United States,” he said.
Regarding Schneller, he said, “we were not aware of the meeting,” but “we are looking into that issue.”
Crowley said that the US policy on Hamas – a policy rooted in theQuartet principles that there will only be contact with theorganization if it renounces terrorism, recognizes Israel’s right toexist and accepts previous agreements – hasn’t changed and “is notgoing to change.”
One senior Israeli official said that Jerusalem has not heard of any desire in Washington to change that policy.