JERUSALEM – Israel will push forward with its offensive in the Gaza Strip until Palestinian militants release a captured Israeli soldier and halt their rocket attacks, top officials said Sunday, rejecting international criticism that the army has used excessive force during a nearly two-week operation in the coastal area.
The officials spoke a day after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rejected a call by the Palestinian prime minister for a cease-fire. The offensive, launched in response to the soldier's capture, has caused widespread destruction in Gaza and left more than 40 Palestinians dead.
"The goal of the operation is simply to stop the terrorism," he added, saying the operation will continue until the Palestinians take action.
At the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, ministers expressed unanimous support for Olmert's refusal to negotiate with the militants, his rejection of the truce offer and his decision to continue the Gaza offensive, participants said.
Israeli ground troops entered Gaza on June 28, three days after Palestinian militants crossed into southern Israel and captured an Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 19. While the army's initial aim was to free the soldier, the mission was expanded to halt continuing rocket attacks from northern Gaza.
Israeli forces have battered the coastal strip with heavy artillery barrages and airstrikes in the army's largest operation in Gaza since troops and settlers withdrew last summer.
Palestinian hospital officials say 44 Palestinians have died in the offensive and more than 160 have been wounded. One Israeli soldier was killed last week.
The Palestinian casualties, while mostly gunmen, include civilians. On Saturday a woman and her two children were killed in a blast at their house and four other family members were wounded.
Israeli military officials said they weren't responsible. They said the only military activity in the area was a successful airstrike on a cell firing anti-tank missiles.
In Gaza City, hundreds of people joined a funeral procession for the family. The body of 6-year-old Rawan Hajaj was carried on a bloodstained stretcher, her face exposed and body covered in a flag of the Islamic Jihad militant group. In a show of unity, gunmen from rival Palestinian factions fired into the air.
Late Saturday, the United Nations accused Israel of widespread human rights violations and hardship to civilians. It said the operations "have seen innocent civilians, including children, killed, brought increased misery to hundreds of thousands of people and ... will wreak far-reaching harm on Palestinian society."
Israeli officials rejected the criticism.
"Anybody who calls this operation disproportionate has no clue about the facts on the ground. We have been attacked and bombarded for months and weeks," Cabinet minister Yitzhak Herzog said Sunday. "With all due respect to all those who criticize us, if anything of this nature would have happened in their homeland, they would have acted much worse."
Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, commander of Israel's southern region, said Israel would not let up, though it planned to shift the focus of operations from place to place.
"We are prepared to continue the operation a month, two months and, if need be, even more," he told Channel 2 TV late Saturday. "The Palestinians will do their reckoning. They will count hundreds of dead terrorists. They will count the damaged infrastructure, the destroyed offices, the damaged factories."
On Saturday, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh urged Israel to halt its offensive, release Palestinian prisoners and resume indirect talks about the captured soldier through international mediators. But he didn't offer to free the soldier.
Hamas has sent out conflicting signals since militants linked to the Islamic group captured Cpl. Shalit on June 25. The mixed messages reflect divisions between its more militant leadership in Syria and more pragmatic politicians in Gaza. Israel has accused the Hamas political chief, Syrian-based Khaled Mashaal, of ordering the soldier's capture.
Aides to Olmert said he would not accept a truce until Shalit was freed.