Pressure on Hamas increases

As the armed wing of Hamas threatened to avenge the killing of 15
Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, Israel’s acting premier Ehud Olmert pledged to strike as long as militants continued to fire rockets from the territory.

“One thing must be clear, whoever fires Qassam rockets, whoever is engaged in terrorist activity, is a legitimate target and will be dealt with without hesitation by the security forces,” Mr Olmert told a cabinet meeting.

“There is no restriction on the security services regarding the carrying out of these actions wherever they identify the danger of terrorist activity.”

Diplomats to be shunned

Mr Olmert later hosted a meeting of top security and diplomatic officials in which it was decided that any foreign official who made contact with the Hamas government would be shunned and Israel’s own boycott was reaffirmed.

“Israel will not hold ties with the Palestinian Authority which is a hostile authority,” he said.

Mr Olmert, whose Kadima party is to head the next coalition after its own election victory last month, has consistently refused to deal with Hamas.

The plan to cold-shoulder diplomats is similar to that instituted by Israel towards foreign officials who met the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat before his death in November 2004.

Although the move is designed to dissuade anyone holding talks with the Hamas-led government, officials who meet moderate Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas will not be shunned.

Israel has already persuaded the European Union and United States to cut direct aid payments to the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority now that it is led by an organisation considered by the West as a terrorist organisation.

Even though the Islamists have held off any suicide attacks in the last year, they still refuse to renounce violence or recognise Israel’s right to exist.

Militants unmoved

However the prospects of a Hamas U-turn looked particularly dim, after its armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, vowed to avenge the Israeli attacks.

“The Zionist enemy will pay a high price and will drink from the same cup from which our people drink day and night,” it said in a statement.

Palestinian prime minister, Ismail Haniya, held his own emergency cabinet meeting to discuss the weekend of violence, the deadliest since Hamas’s sweeping victory in a January parliamentary election.

Spokesman Ghazi Hamad said the government would lobby the United Nations in a bid to halt Israel’s activity.

“We will ask the general assembly and the security council to debate this Israeli escalation,” he said.

Palestinian ministers also criticised the EU and US decision to cut funding, saying it amounted to collective punishment and a form of blackmail.

“The cabinet wanted to know why the US and EU do not condemn these Israeli massacres while at the same time they are halting the aid to the Palestinian people.”

The latest victim of the violence was a 29-year-old taxi driver, Yasser Abu Jarad, killed by a tank shell by a national security post in the northern Gaza Strip as he dropped off members of a military unit.

A further 23 people were wounded in other strikes during the course of the day.

Militants launched another three rockets, triggering Israeli artillery fire, but no casualties were reported.

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