Israelis won't leave Gaza

Drive will go on till hostage is freed, rockets stopped, Olmert says


GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Israel will continue its military offensive in the Gaza Strip at its own pace until Palestinian militants release a captured Israeli soldier and halt their rocket attacks, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his Cabinet yesterday.

The operation in Gaza is a "war for which it is impossible to set a timetable," Olmert said, according to briefings provided by an Israeli official. "We will continue this battle with level-headedness and patience, while making use of the proper means," he is reported to have said. "We cannot sit and not respond to the Qassam rocket fire."

Olmert ruled out negotiations with Hamas, which leads the Palestinian government and whose military branch is holding Cpl. Gilad Shalit, abducted during a raid into Israel on June 25.

He said he had been prepared to release prisoners to Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, before the two men met for a formal meeting, and Abbas confirmed that on Friday. But Olmert said yesterday, "We intended to release them to moderate elements, not terrorist elements." Releasing prisoners to Hamas in response to a kidnapping would further damage Palestinian moderates and reward extremism, Olmert said.

He repeated to the Cabinet that Israel would not reoccupy Gaza but would act militarily there as it saw fit. "We will operate, enter and pull out as needed," the official quoted Olmert as saying.

Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, commander of Israel's southern region, said late Saturday that Israel was ready for a long campaign, planning to shift the focus of operations from place to place.

"We are prepared to continue the operation a month, two months and, if need be, even more," he told Channel 2 television. "The Palestinians will do their reckoning. They will count hundreds of dead terrorists, they will count the damaged infrastructure, the destroyed offices, the damaged factories."

Yesterday, the Palestinians counted more dead, even as they mourned and buried four people, including three from the same family, killed Saturday night in the Shijaia neighborhood, near the Karni commercial crossing, in an explosion at a house. The Palestinians blamed Israel for the deaths.

But Israel said that its investigation showed that the explosion did not come from an airstrike, and that intelligence reports later showed that the deaths had been caused by a Palestinian anti-tank rocket.

Capt. Jacob Dallal, a spokesman for the military, said the Israeli air force, which tracks its missiles carefully, reported that its missile "hit the intended target," which was a nearby street where militants were walking with weapons. He said the army did not know what happened to those men, but "we hit the area we targeted, not the house."

An Israeli military official said intelligence information developed later, presumably from a source within Gaza, "clearly says that it was a Palestinian anti-tank missile." The military official insisted on not being identified and said he could not be more specific.

Yesterday, a Palestinian civilian was killed by an Israeli missile fired at a car carrying Hamas militants in the southern town of Rafah. The militants apparently escaped from the car, and a second missile hit nearby, wounding bystanders. The dead man was identified as Bilal Sliman Rabah, an 18-year-old supermarket clerk. Seven other Palestinians were wounded, with one in very serious condition, hospital authorities said.

Earlier yesterday, just after midnight, the air force struck a group of armed militants near the Karni crossing, wounding three, members of the Palestinian security forces said.

Airstrikes also destroyed a major bridge in Beit Hanun, in northern Gaza, and an electricity transformer there, making it difficult to travel easily to the city and cutting electricity and some water supplies.

Palestinians continued to fire Qassam rockets into Israel despite the military operation. One resident of the nearby Israeli town of Sderot was moderately wounded yesterday morning from shrapnel wounds to the chest when a Qassam hit. A second rocket hit a house, and three people were treated for shock.

Three of the four Palestinians killed on Saturday in the house explosion were members of the Hajaj family - Um Ayman Hajaj, 48; her son Muhammad, 21; and her daughter Rawan, 6. Four other reatives were wounded.

The house is on the very edge of the Palestinian area closest to the Karni crossing into Israel.

Abbas, back in Ramallah, ordered two representatives to discuss the crisis with Syria and with the exiled leader of Hamas' political bureau, Khaled Meshal.

On Friday, in a news conference, Abbas said he did not know of any splits in Hamas and dealt only with the elected Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniya, who called in vain for a mutual cease-fire on Saturday, quickly rejected by Israel without Shalit's release.

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