JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert threatened on Sunday a “disproportionate” response to the continued rocket and mortar fire into Israel from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Shortly after Olmert spoke, three Israelis were wounded by mortars, medics and the Israeli army said. The wounded included two soldiers and the first Israeli civilian hurt since a Jan. 18 truce ended Israel’s 22-day offensive in the coastal enclave.
Two rockets struck southern Israel earlier on Sunday, causing no damage or casualties. A wing of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a group belonging to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, claimed responsibility for that attack. No group made an immediate claim for the mortar shootings.
“The government’s position was from the outset that if there is shooting at the residents of the south, there will be a harsh Israeli response that will be disproportionate,” Olmert said at the weekly cabinet meeting.
“We will act according to new rules which will ensure that we will not be drawn into a war of incessant shooting on the southern border, which would deprive the residents of the south of a normal life,” he said, without elaborating.
A spokesman for the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip condemned what he described as Olmert’s “aggressive statement”. But the spokesman, Taher al-Nono, also urged all Palestinian factions to “respect the national consensus” on the ceasefire the Islamist group declared two weeks ago after Israel announced it was halting the Gaza offensive.
Israel was criticised internationally for the deaths, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza, of more than 1,300 Palestinians, including at least 700 civilians.
Critics said Israel had responded disproportionately, in its air and ground offensive in heavily populated areas, to cross-border rocket attacks over the previous eight years that killed 18 people.
During the Gaza campaign, 10 Israeli soldiers and three civilians were killed.
Since the truce, in addition to Sunday’s injuries, an Israeli soldier was killed and three others were wounded when a bomb exploded next to their patrol. Israeli air strikes since Jan. 18 have killed three Palestinians and wounded 10.
Israel said Hamas militants bore responsibility for civilian deaths in Gaza by operating inside its towns and refugee camps.
Egypt has been trying to broker a long-term ceasefire that would end Hamas weapons smuggling into the Gaza Strip and also lead to a reopening of Gaza border crossings, one of the Islamist group’s main demands.
Olmert’s comments were echoed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, a candidate for prime minister in Israel’s Feb. 10 election. Olmert, who quit in a corruption scandal in September but stayed on as caretaker prime minister, is not running. “Israel will respond,” said Livni, who replaced Olmert as head of the ruling, centrist Kadima party. “This is my position. It was clear before, during and after the operation, and this is how I will conduct myself as prime minister.”
Opinion polls in the final stretch of an election campaign dominated by security issues and promises by candidates to keep Hamas at bay, suggest the right-wing Likud party of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will win the most votes.