JERUSALEM (AFP) – Israel has vowed to continue air attacks in the Gaza Strip despite a global outcry over the killing of civilians in botched raids.
“The Israeli government that I lead will continue raids against the terrorists,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was quoted by Israeli public radio as telling an economic forum at Cesarea in northern Israel late Thursday.
“I regret the lives of innocent (Palestinians), but those of the Israeli inhabitants of Sderot count no less in my eyes,” he said.
Fourteen Palestinian civilians, including five children, have been killed in air strikes over Gaza in nine days, following an upsurge in cross-border violence that has seen nearly 150 rockets fired at Israel in two weeks.
Two air attacks carried out in the past two days missed their targets of presumed Palestinian militants and instead killed three children on Tuesday and another two civilians on Wednesday, one of them a pregnant woman.
In addition, a Palestinian police intelligence officer was shot dead by Israeli soldiers who came to arrest him in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Thursday, a Palestinian security source said.
Against the backdrop of violence, Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas met informally in Jordan in the first top-level contact between the two sides for a year.
Palestinian prime minister Ismail Haniya, head of the Hamas-led government, demanded that Israel immediately halt its “killings and bombings”.
“We have always expressed our willingness to establish calm and stability in the region. For us to do that, the Israeli side has to stop the blind killings and bombings of civilians and children,” Haniya told reporters.
The United States, United Nations, Russia, France, Jordan, Syria and Egypt were among those expressing shock and condemnation over the Israeli strikes that resulted in civilian casualties.
But Israeli air force commander General Eliezer Shkedi vowed that air strikes would continue as the most effective weapon against militants, albeit while counseling extreme caution to ensure that civilians were not harmed.
“In the current circumstances, it is the most efficient tactic against terrorists who fire rockets at Israel,” he told army radio.
Israel withdrew all its ground troops from Gaza in September last year after a 38-year occupation. Shkedi said the air force had, since the beginning of 2006, carried out five times the number of air strikes as last year.
“We are acting with extreme caution… We have to make a very big effort to try everything possible to avoid harming those who are not involved,” he said.
Meanwhile, Olmert and Abbas attended breakfast with Jordanian King Abdullah II and other guests in the World Heritage site of Petra on the margins of a Nobel laureates forum.
After the one-hour meal, both Abbas and Olmert pledged to meet again in a bid to revive the moribund peace process. The Palestinian leader said preparations for a new meeting would “begin next week.”
The Israeli premier, who has vowed to use his four-year mandate to redraw the Jewish state’s borders, declared that he was steadfast about working towards peace and withdrawing from some occupied Palestinian territory.
“I am ready to put on (the) line everything for one purpose, to achieve peace, to make compromise, to pull out of certain territories,” he said.
Yet he also listed “non-negotiable conditions” to ensure the success of future meetings, namely: “total disarmament of terrorist organisations, full implementation of agreements and formal recognition of Israel,” he said.
Governing Palestinian faction Hamas, which is blacklisted as a terrorist organisation in the West, has stubbornly refused to disarm, renounce violence, recognise Israel or abide by previous international agreements.
Its hardline stance, in opposition to Abbas’s Fatah party, has brought the Palestinians to the brink of financial meltdown after the EU and US suspended direct aid in protest, helping to fuel a political crisis and deadly feuding.
In a bid to resolve the situation, Hamas and Fatah have been locked in talks focused on a proposed policy programme that implicitly recognises Israel’s right to exist by calling for a Palestinian state on land conquered in 1967, an end to attacks in Israel and a national unity government.
Unless the initiative is accepted by all factions, Abbas will put it to a referendum, already set for July 26, a move that Hamas slammed as a bid to overthrow its democratically elected government.
Amid efforts to secure a last minute deal and avert a vote, however, Abbas said he would travel to Gaza on Friday to supervise the ongoing talks.
“Tomorrow I will go to Gaza and I hope that we are going to reach positive results. That will allow us to present the world with new ideas in order to end the siege imposed on us,” Abbas told reporters on Thursday.