OPT: Israel opts for limited response to Hamas attacks

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM, April 25 (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert opted on Wednesday for limited military action in Gaza after Hamas's armed wing fired rockets into Israel and declared a ceasefire in the territory dead, political sources said.

Ruling out a ground offensive, Olmert decided in talks with security chiefs to step up "targeted attacks" against Palestinian rocket-launching crews but refrain from going after senior militants or political leaders, the sources said.

"Israel will not hesitate to take harsh measures against those who try to harm its sovereignty by firing rockets into our territory, attempting attacks on soldiers, and (by) other means," Olmert's office said in a statement after the security session.

Hamas's Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades launched eight rockets at Israel from Gaza on Tuesday in what the group termed retaliation for Israel's killing of nine Palestinians in recent raids against militants in the occupied West Bank.

Two of the rockets landed in southern Israel on its 59th Independence Day, the military said, causing minor damage but no casualties. It was the first such attack since Hamas and Israeli leaders agreed to a Gaza ceasefire last November.

The Israeli military recently completed a training programme to ready ground forces for a land offensive against militants in the territory should the government give the green light, Israeli security sources said.

But one political source said Olmert, his popularity flagging since last year's inconclusive Lebanon war, was not interested in a massive assault at this time.

An official inquiry into the 34-day conflict with Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas and the military's preparedness for war in the north is due to release its interim findings next week.

In Gaza, a Palestinian official said an Egyptian security team held separate meetings with Hamas and the Islamic Jihad group and stressed the need to restore calm to avoid giving Israel a pretext to mount a ground offensive.


On Tuesday, after the rocket strikes, Abu Abaida, a spokesman for the Qassam brigades, said: "There is no calm between us and the (Israeli) occupation. The occupation ended the calm."

The Hamas-led Palestinian government, however, said it was interested in maintaining the Gaza ceasefire.

The truce does not cover the West Bank, where the Israeli military mounts frequent raids against militant groups it says are constantly planning attacks inside Israel.

"If the occupation (Israel) ... stops all assassinations, violence, arrests and raids against our people, Hamas will consider an enduring calm in liaison with other factions, as a collective position," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose secular Fatah faction formed a governing coalition with Hamas last month, called the rocket strikes "an exceptional event that will not last".

Speaking at a news conference in Rome on Tuesday, Abbas urged Israel to show "self-control" and head off escalation.

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza)


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