PETRA, Jordan – Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired three homemade rockets into Israel on Friday, hours after the Israeli prime minister pledged to push forward with airstrikes against the militants despite a recent string of civilian casualties.
The Israeli army said there were no injuries or damage from the rocket fire. But the attack prompted a prominent legislator to call for Israel to launch a military offensive into the densely populated Gaza Strip.
Speaking Thursday evening at an economic conference in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert apologized "from the depths of my being" for civilian deaths in recent airstrikes in Gaza. But he added, "Israel will continue to carry out targeted attacks against terrorists and those who try to harm Israeli citizens."
"I am deeply sorry for the residents of Gaza but the lives, security and well-being of the residents of Sderot is no less important," Olmert said, referring to the southern Israeli town that has been pelted by rocket fire from Gaza.
Olmert issued a similar apology earlier Thursday after an informal meeting in Jordan with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. It was the first meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in more than a year.
On Friday, Sderot residents postponed a scheduled protest march against the daily attacks after the three rockets were fired in their direction. Earlier this week, Sderot residents blocked roads and held a one-day strike to protest the continuing rocket fire.
Yuval Steinitz, former chairman of the Israeli parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee, accused Palestinian authorities of failing to prevent rocket fire. He said Israel must now take further steps to protect itself.
"I call on the government of Israel to wait no further, but to launch a comprehensive ground operation in Gaza for several weeks, to strike at the very foundations of the terrorist infrastructure," the lawmaker from the hard-line Likud Party told Israel Radio.
Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip last summer, pulling out its troops and closing all Jewish settlements there.
Steinitz said a Gaza offensive should be along the lines of the army's "Operation Defensive Shield" launched into West Bank towns after 29 Israelis were killed in a suicide bombing during Passover celebrations in spring 2002.
The fiercest fighting in Defensive Shield was in Jenin, the bomber's hometown, where 52 Palestinians and 23 Israeli soldiers were killed, hundreds of homes were reduced to rubble, and 2,000 people were left homeless.
"We went into Jenin ... we hit the terrorist infrastructure hard and we withdrew," Steinitz said Friday. "In the same way that we carried out Defensive Shield I in the West Bank, which lasted several weeks, so we should act in Gaza."
Haim Ramon, a Cabinet minister in the ruling Kadima Party, warned against sending troops into the hostile and heavily armed coastal strip. He said the mission could cost many lives on both sides and leave Israeli forces bogged down in a reoccupation of the territory, first captured in the 1967 Mideast War.
"Those 'few weeks' will turn into 40 years," he told the radio in response to Steinitz's call.
Palestinian militants have fired rockets toward Israel almost daily since Israel completed the Gaza withdrawal in September. The crude weapons have baffled the high-tech Israeli army, whose repeated airstrikes and artillery fire have failed to halt the rocket fire.
The Israeli air strikes have killed dozens of militants. But three recent air force raids killed a total of 13 Palestinian civilians, drawing Israeli apologies and international condemnation.
Senior military officers have said they are prepared to send troops back into Gaza if necessary, but would only do so as a last resort. A senior air force officer defended a botched air strike on Wednesday against alleged Palestinian militants in which two civilians were killed and 13 were wounded, saying that such operations were preferable to a ground operation.
Abbas this week called on militant groups to halt the rocket fire, saying they would be held responsible for any Israeli reprisal. The Hamas-led Palestinian government, however, has done little to stop the rockets, saying the attacks are legitimate acts of "resistance" against Israel.
At Thursday's meeting in Jordan, Olmert said he would make every effort to reach agreement with the Palestinians, singling out the moderate Abbas as a negotiating partner. But he said Israel could not talk to the Palestinian government headed by the militant Islamic Hamas, "which leans on terrorism."
Abbas has been pushing Hamas to accept a proposal that implicitly recognizes Israel as a way to reduce tensions. While talks with Hamas continue, Abbas has scheduled a July 26 referendum on the proposal if the negotiations fail.
Olmert has said he will carry out a unilateral pullout from much of the West Bank if peace efforts fail. The Palestinians, who claim all of the West Bank, oppose the unilateral approach.
Abbas and Olmert agreed Thursday to hold a formal meeting in the coming weeks.