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MID: Israel vows to strike Hamas after Gaza rocket fire

01 Feb 2009 8:22 PM

JERUSALEM, Feb 1 AFP - Israel has vowed to strike back at Hamas in the wake of renewed rocket fire from the Islamists' Gaza stronghold two weeks after the end of a bloody war in the battered Palestinian territory.

"We've said that if there is rocket fire against the south of the country, there will be a severe and disproportionate Israeli response to the fire on the citizens of Israel and its security forces," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said at the weekly cabinet meeting.

Israel - which goes to the polls on February 10 - has been hit by several rockets since a January 18 ceasefire brought an end to the 22-day war on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

"We will not agree to return to the old rules of the game and we will act according to new rules that will guarantee that we are not dragged into an incessant tit-for-tat war that will not allow normal life in the south of the country," Olmert said.

"The situation... in recent days has increased in a manner that does not allow Israel not to retaliate in order to make sure that our position... is understood by those involved in the fire.

"The response will come at the time, the place and the manner that we choose."

Defence Minister Ehud Barak said that "Hamas was given a very serious blow and if necessary it will be given another blow".

Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, infrastructure minister and a member of Israel's powerful security cabinet, said the Islamists had to pay for each rocket fired.

"We can under no circumstances behave under rules that Hamas wants to impose on us," he told army radio. "We have set a price for each rocket fired and now Hamas has to pay."

The officials spoke after four rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel from Gaza within a space of a few hours on Sunday. No group had yet claimed responsibility.

In all, at least seven rockets had been fired into the Jewish state since mutual ceasefires by Israel and Hamas on January 18 brought an end to Israel's massive three-week onslaught on the territory that left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead. Thirteen Israelis were killed in the same period.

Tensions around Gaza began to escalate 10 days after the ceasefires, when an Israeli soldier died as a result of a roadside bomb near the Gaza border.

Egypt has been leading international efforts to consolidate the ceasefires into a lasting truce and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas was to head to Cairo for talks on Sunday.

Officials from Hamas, the Islamist movement which ousted pro-Abbas forces from Gaza in June 2007, are also due in the Egyptian capital.

A senior Palestinian official close to Abbas said that the talks in Cairo had failed to produce progress up till now and that little headway is expected until Hamas patches up differences between its representatives in Gaza and its exiled leadership in Damascus.

"The are problems between the leaders here in Gaza and those in Damascus," the official said on condition of anonymity.

"There can't be progress on the truce and reconciliation talks until this issue is resolved, because until then, the Gaza leaders say one thing and the ones in Damascus say something completely different," he said.

Abbas's secular Fatah party and its rival Hamas have been at odds since the Islamists violently seized power in Gaza in June 2007, kicking out pro-Abbas forces after days of ferocious street battles.

The schism has been accentuated by the Gaza war, with Hamas exiled political supremo Khaled Meshaal calling in its wake for a new leadership to replace Abbas's Palestine Liberation Organisation, long internationally recognised as the sole representative of the Palestinian people.

Meshaal was in Tehran on Sunday for his first post-Gaza war visit to the Islamic republic, a staunch supporter of his movement and of Lebanon's Hezbollah militia, the state new agency IRNA reported.