JERUSALEM (AFP) – Palestinian militants have slammed rockets into Israel as warplanes raided the Gaza Strip, prompting officials to talk tough but admit they were powerless to eliminate the menace.
The strikes by both sides came one day after a 57-year-old Israeli mother of two was killed when a salvo of Palestinian rockets crashed into the southern town of Sderot in the first such lethal attack from Gaza since July 2005.
Hours later, Israeli warplanes carried out five overnight air raids across the Gaza Strip, targeting five buildings the military said were used by militants, in attacks that Palestinians medics said left five people wounded.
Even so, the Israeli leadership admitted they had no final solution to wipe out the near-constant rocket threat since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005 after a 38-year occupation.
Flying home from California, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert acknowledged that rocket fire would not end in one swoop, calling Wednesday’s attacks “severe” but declaring only that operations will continue “according to circumstance”.
“There has been Qassam fire in the south (for) a long time and we view it as extremely serious and therefore take actions,” he briefed reporters travelling with him, claiming that “360 terrorists” had been killed since June.
“The rocket fire will not end with one blow,” he confessed — sentiments echoed by Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres, a Nobel peace laureate, who admitted to army radio that the government had no definitive solution.
“We are making all efforts and a lot of people are risking their lives. But the unequivocal way to stop it (rocket fire) completely has yet to be found.”
Palestinian militant groups fired two rockets into southern Israel, one of which caused damage to a building in a kibbutz but neither of which caused any casualties on Thursday, an army spokesman said.
Israel has been waging military operations inside the Gaza Strip for nearly five months, launched in a bid to retrieve a soldier captured by Palestinian militants in late June and halt rocket attacks.
More than 300 Palestinians and three Israeli soldiers have since died in the territory, but rocket attacks continue and the young Israeli soldier remains in captivity.
Defence Minister Amir Peretz, following talks late Wednesday with military top brass, vowed that militants would “pay a heavy price” for attacks.
“We will move against those who are involved in the firing of rockets, starting from their leaders and down to the last of their terrorists,” Peretz said.
But in a speech commemorating the 18th anniversary of a symbolic Palestinian declaration of independence, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas urged Israel to seize the opportunity for peace, saying he was ready for final negotiations.
“I address Israelis to say to them: don’t lose the opportunity for peace,” he said in a pre-recorded televised speech broadcast late Wednesday.
“I announce in the name of the Palestinian people that we are entirely ready for serious and final negotiations to end decades of conflict and bloodshed,” Abbas said.
Israeli radio said the military had been ordered to conduct “pinpoint attacks” and step up “targeted killings” of militants responsible for rocket strikes, particularly those from Hamas, which heads the Palestinian government.
Authorities warned residents in Sderot to stay at home, fearing new attacks while mulling the evacuation next week of the town’s 4,000 children to schools further north out of rocket range, the radio and press reported.
The Israeli military said that 19 rockets slammed into southern Israel on Wednesday — exactly one week after a botched Israeli strike killed 19 Palestinians, mostly women and children, in the Gaza town of Beit Hanun.
In Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council voted to send an urgent fact-finding mission to Beit Hanun to examine the impact of Israel’s offensive — a move rejected by the Israeli ambassador and criticised by the United States.