Olmert defends Gaza Strip incursion


JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert defended his government's handling of the conflict in the Gaza Strip, saying yesterday that the offensive would continue until Palestinian militants free a captured soldier and stop firing rockets into Israel.

He again ruled out a prisoner swap with Hamas to win the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was seized by militants June 25 during a cross-border raid.

"I will not negotiate with Hamas," Olmert told foreign journalists during a session that focused on Israel's two-week-old Gaza incursion. The operation is a major test for his new government, which is widely perceived as being light on security credentials.

Olmert said there is no timetable for ending the offensive, which has consisted of airstrikes, limited incursions into populated areas in northern Gaza, and heavy shelling of areas from which militants frequently launch primitive Kassam rockets. At least 55 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier have died in the fighting.

The conflict continued to simmer yesterday. An Israeli airstrike near the southern town of Khan Yunis killed two militants identified by Palestinians as members of Islamic Jihad. Another gunman was killed in an Israeli air attack on the outskirts of Gaza City.

Israeli forces fired artillery at northern Gaza after Palestinian militants launched three rockets early yesterday that fell harmlessly in Israel.

Olmert rebuffed criticism that Israel has used excessive force, including an attack on a power plant that caused a widespread energy shortage. He said he had "no particular desire to topple the Hamas government," despite airstrikes against Hamas-run ministries, arrests of two dozen Hamas lawmakers and threats to target the group's leaders, including Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

Hamas militants were among the three groups that claimed to have seized Shalit, 19.

His capture, coupled with a jump last month in the number of Kassam rockets fired at towns in southern Israel, have presented the Olmert government with its first military crisis. It has proved a key test for Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, both of whom assumed office with little expertise in security and military affairs.

Their inexperience in military matters was a major topic when the coalition government was formed after Olmert's centrist Kadima party won national elections. Military credentials go far in Israel, where some past prime ministers, such as Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin, were former generals.

Critics have questioned whether the government has a long-term strategy that will keep Israel from being dragged back into Gaza after its withdrawal last summer, though Olmert and Peretz have won praise by some for the measured military response.

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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