Israel threatens retaliation for Gaza missile attacks

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Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert threatened painful retaliation against Gaza militants today for rockets still hitting Israel six weeks after its military halted an offensive that was supposed to have stopped them for good.

Mr Olmert met with his Cabinet to formulate a response now that it appears clear the goal of ending the rocket fire from the Gaza Strip was not achieved.

The Israeli military said Palestinians have launched over 110 rockets and mortar shells at Israel since the Gaza offensive ended on January 18. On Saturday, a rocket crashed into a high school in the coastal city of Ashkelon, causing no injuries because the school was closed for the weekend.

When Israel halted the offensive, Mr Olmert said, "we took into account the possibility that shooting by the terrorist organisations might resume."

The rockets, he said, "will be answered with a painful, harsh, strong and uncompromising response from the security forces." Mr Olmert spoke at the weekly Cabinet meeting.

Many Israelis believe the Gaza operation ended too soon, leaving Hamas in power in Gaza and seemingly undaunted. One of them is hard-line Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's incoming prime minister, who is currently working to cobble together a new ruling coalition and is likely to replace Mr Olmert within weeks.

Israel and Hamas have failed so far to reach a long-term truce through Egyptian mediation. So far, Israel has responded to the rocket fire with airstrikes targeting smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border through which Hamas has smuggled some of its weaponry.

Some in Israel's military blame the government for squandering any deterrent advantage won by the devastating three-week operation.

The offensive was immediately followed by a national election campaign which made Israel's leaders unwilling to become embroiled in new fighting, and the resurgence of the rocket fire has come in the absence of either a long-term ceasefire with Hamas or punishing retaliation, the military officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not willing to publicly criticise the country's political leaders.

The heightened possibility of renewed hostilities in Gaza came ahead of a week of intense – and possibly crucial – diplomatic activity.

Monday will see top diplomats from around the world convene in Egypt for an international conference on the strip's reconstruction, with the Palestinians seeking 2.8 billion dollars (1.95 billion) in aid.

International aid will not be able to move ahead without a firm truce between Israel and Hamas, but Egyptian-mediated talks between the sides have yielded no results so far.

Hamas wants Israel to open Gaza's blockaded border crossings, without which any major rebuilding will be impossible. Israel says it will do so only after Hamas releases an Israeli soldier it has held since 2006.

Another stumbling block is the feud between Hamas and the more moderate West Bank-based government of President Mahmoud Abbas. International donors largely refuse to funnel aid through Hamas, preferring instead to deal with Abbas. The billions of dollars in donor funds hanging in the balance have served to spur new reconciliation talks between the two Palestinian factions. Those are currently under way in Cairo.

Hamas and Mr Abbas' Fatah movement have been at odds for years, a spat that culminated in Hamas' bloody rout of Fatah in Gaza and its takeover of the territory.

The new US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, is making her first Mideast visit to attend the Gaza donors' conference. She will then continue to Israel and the West Bank.

Mrs Clinton will arrive in Israel at a time of political uncertainty. Mr Olmert is currently a caretaker prime minister in the aftermath of last month's election, which saw gains by Mr Netanyahu's Likud and other hard-line parties.

Mr Netanyahu's new government could consist of an alliance of hard-line and Orthodox parties opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state, which could set Israel up for a clash with Clinton and the US administration.