JERUSALEM (AFP) – Israel threatened on Sunday to target leaders of the Islamist Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip after a child hit by shrapnel in a rocket attack on southern Israel had a leg amputated.
Speaking at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting after huddling with security officials, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appeared to rule out an expanded operation in the coastal strip but warned that no-one from Hamas would be excluded from continuing military strikes.
“We will continue to reach all the terror bodies — those responsible for them, those who send them and those who operate them. We will not exclude anyone,” Olmert said.
“We cannot ignore the feelings and frustrations felt in Sderot and nearby communities, especially after yesterday’s attack,” he said, referring to the eight-year-old boy who had his leg amputated after being hit by shrapnel from a rocket fired from Gaza.
“The rage is understandable,” he said. “But it should be clear that rage is not a work plan. We must act in an orderly and systematic way over a long period of time. This is what we have been doing and we will continue doing.”
As violence in and around Gaza has escalated over the past week after the territory’s breached border with Egypt was resealed, dozens of rockets have been fired from the territory, wounding a handful of people, with the eight-year-old sustaining the most serious injuries.
Israeli military strikes in Gaza have killed at least 20 people over the past week, all but one of them militants.
Cabinet ministers urged the prime minister to order strikes against political as well as military leaders of Hamas.
“Those who are responsible for the terror activity are the heads of Hamas,” Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit of Olmert’s centrist Kadima party said at the cabinet meeting. “Our duty is to bring them to justice and to bring justice to them.”
Earlier Housing Minister Zeev Boim, also of Kadima, called for “attacks against the heads of the serpent, starting from (Ismail) Haniya and all those below him.” He was referring to the prime minister of the Hamas-led government dismissed by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas when the Islamists seized Gaza last June.
Ever since Hamas seized control of Gaza almost eight months ago, calls have mounted in Israel for the army to launch a major offensive against the territory in a bid to stop the rocket fire.
The previous major ground operation, launched in June 2006 after Gaza militants seized an Israeli soldier in a deadly cross-border raid, lasted five months and killed several hundred Palestinians but failed to halt the rockets.
To great fanfare, Olmert restarted peace talks with the Palestinians in November after a seven-year freeze.
The premier has repeatedly resisted calls for a major offensive in Gaza, from which Israel withdrew settlers and troops in 2005 after a 38-year presence.
In addition to the military strikes, Israel has imposed a series of economic sanctions again Gaza, which it declared a “hostile entity” last September following the Hamas takeover.
On January 17, it imposed a full-scale blockade. Amid international fears of a humanitarian crisis in the impoverished territory where much of the 1.5 million population depends on foreign aid, Israel eased the lockdown on January 22, allowing in limited supplies of fuel, food and medicines.
The following day, militants blew open sections of the border barriers separating Gaza from Egypt and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians poured into Egypt to stock up on supplies in the ensuing two weeks.