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Gaza Rockets, Civilian Deaths Put Israel on Double Defensive

With rockets raining down from the Gaza Strip, Israel is on the defensive, both militarily and diplomatically.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert apologized Thursday for 14 Palestinian civilians killed in Israeli air strikes on Gaza that called into question the efficacy and ethics of Israeli retaliation for Palestinian rocket attacks.

But with Israel out of Gaza and almost out of alternatives for stemming the cross-border rocket salvoes, Olmert made clear that Israeli countermeasures could be improved but not abandoned.

“It is against our policy and I am very, very sorry,” he said during a conference in Petra, Jordan, where he and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas held informal talks billed as leading to a peace summit.

“When I see the pain in the eyes of the Israeli commander whose actions brought about the deaths… then I know we want to find ways to avoid it,” Olmert said.

The 14 bystanders, many of them children, died when Israeli missiles missed rocket crews in built-up areas of northern Gaza, or struck them and caused explosions that damaged the surroundings.

Foreign censure was quick to follow. The United Nations and at least one European Union nation called on Israel to cease its “unlawful extrajudicial killings.”

But no one offered other solutions to rocket fire that has increased since Israel quit Gaza last year. Hundreds of Kassam rockets have fallen on Israeli border towns like Sderot.

Casualties have been relatively few, but residents of southern Israel say it’s only a matter of time before a bustling school or gas station suffers a direct hit.

Abbas has no answer. After condemning one Israeli airstrike last week as “state terrorism,” this week the Palestinian Authority president urged an end to the rocket fire, but his call went unheeded.

The Hamas government with which Abbas shares power uses fiery rhetoric against Israel. According to Israeli officials, Hamas also has been tacitly helping terrorist groups develop rockets.

The latest civilian casualties – a pregnant Palestinian woman and her brother killed when an errant missile hit their home Wednesday night – prompted Israel’s military chief, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, to order a review.

The air force chief, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Shkedy, gave a flurry of press interviews. The message was clear: Israel has no choice but to pursue the air strikes, albeit with greater efforts to improve their accuracy and prevent collateral damage.

This is a work in progress. According to security sources, Israel used U.S.- made “Hellfire” missiles from its helicopters until 2003, when it became clear that the weapon, designed to destroy tanks, was sowing unacceptable levels of damage on Gaza’s streets. Israel then switched to a more accurate, locally made guided missile with a warhead whose destructive power could be modified as needed.

According to The Jerusalem Post, a new and even more reliable missile is now being developed.

“This is, essentially, the main and almost only way of waging combat in Gaza at this time,” Shkedy told Army Radio. “The other option is a ground operation and we are trying to avoid this as much as possible.”

The challenges appear to be linked to conditions on the ground. Shkedy said that Palestinian rocket crews increasingly operate in populated areas, knowing that the proximity of non-combatants is a powerful disincentive to Israeli airstrikes. Israel has also seen a fivefold increase in its airborne operations since withdrawing from Gaza, boosting the statistical chance of accidents.

With Olmert planning selective pullouts from the West Bank, and fears abounding of Hamas and even Al-Qaida using ceded territory to pursue all-out jihad against the Jewish state, few Israelis have compunctions about the need for tough countermeasures, despite their sympathy for innocent victims.

“I feel a deep regret over the death of innocents, but there is no moral equivalence between Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israel and Israeli army operations, because the army does not intend to hurt innocents,” Olmert was quoted as telling Abbas in Petra.

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