Israeli air strikes to continue despite global outcry

Israel vowed on Thursday to continue air attacks in the Gaza Strip, despite global outcry over the killing of civilians in botched raids, as the Israeli and Palestinian leaders met in Jordan.

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 48 hours 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.

Israeli air force commander General Eliezer Shkedi quickly counselled extreme caution to ensure that civilians were not harmed, but vowed that air strikes would continue as the most effective tool against militants.

“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 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 ... I think that at this time we have to make a very big effort to try everything possible to avoid harming those who are not involved,” the general said.

Shkedi said aircraft were encountering growing difficulties to prevent “collateral damage” during sorties over Gaza, one of the most-densely populated regions on earth, with militants choosing to operate in built-up areas.

Israeli Chief of Staff Dan Halutz has ordered the air force to investigate the recent attacks, to determine whether the catalogue of mistakes was due to technological malfunction or errors of command, public radio reported.

Defence Minister Amir Peretz, considered a dove in terms of the conflict with the Palestinians, also instructed Halutz to make it clear once again that a mission must be cancelled if it endangers innocent people, the radio said.

Israeli leaders have so far ruled out a large-scale ground operation in Gaza that could entail a partial reoccupation of the volatile territory.

The army suspended artillery fire after eight Palestinian civilians died on June 9 in an explosion while picnicking on the beach.
Rights groups have blamed their deaths on an Israeli shell.

The growing number of civilian deaths has incurred heavy criticism from Middle East peace sponsors, Russia and the United Nations, which called on Israel to respect international law, and from European Union heavyweight the United Kingdom.

Israeli Tourism Minister Yitzhak Herzog openly acknowledged that the Jewish state faced a “serious dilemma” in its fight against Palestinian militants.

“On the one hand, we have to exercise maximum care not to hurt innocent civilians, but on the other hand we must act against terrorists,” he said.

Palestinian officials have said the air strikes, carried out in response to an upsurge in rocket attacks, threaten efforts to relaunch the stagnant Middle East peace process.

Against the backdrop of cross-border violence, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas held an informal meeting—the first top-level contact between the two sides for a year.

The two 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.

Speaking after the one-hour encounter, Abbas said preparations for a new meeting with Olmert would begin next week.

“There is an idea to prepare our next meeting and preparations will begin next week,” Abbas told Agence France-Presse, saying “talks about different general affairs” took place.

Officials have stressed that what was the first meeting between Abbas and Olmert as leaders was of symbolic, rather than concrete, importance.—Sapa-AFP

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