Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, responding Tuesday to the deaths of four small children and their mother as IDF forces hunted gunmen in Gaza the day before, voiced "deep remorse" for the victims, but said Hamas militants operating in civilian areas had exposed non-combatants to danger and turned them "into an inseparable part of the war."
Israel and Hamas have traded accusations over the Monday incident, with the Israel Defense Forces maintaining that the deaths occurred when two missiles fired against Palestinian militants near the family"s tin-hut home detonated explosive devices carried by the militants, causing a "secondary explosion" that killed the civilians. Hamas maintains that an IDF tank fired a shell that killed the family.
Speaking at the opening of a cabinet meeting, Olmert hinted at his own position regarding widespread speculation over an imminent truce with Hamas. "I hope that the brutal fight of the terrorist organizations against Israel will end. But so long as their fight continues, we will be forced to fight them," he said.
Our sorrows are true and more real than the fake remorse of the terrorist organizations that expose their citizens to such injuries".
Olmert noted that in the last few days Qassam rockets and mortar shellshave been fired non-stop from Gaza into the Negev. On Tuesday morning, nine Qassam rockets and six mortar shells fired from Gaza slammed into the western Negev, causing damage at three different locations, but no injuries. One of the Qassams directly hit an unoccupied house in Sderot. There were no injuries in the attack, but a few people were treated for shock.
"It is a miracle that Israeli citizens were not injured in Sderot," Olmert said. "The terrorist organization"s activity against Israel"s people is incessant and Israel"s battle against them is unavoidable if we want to protect Israeli citizens.
"On Monday, as the Israeli Defense Forces attempted to protect our citizens, a mother and her four children were killed. Israel feels deep remorse for this tragic event. The exact nature of these circumstances is still unclear to us. The IDF will carry out an investigation and will publicize its findings."
The incident began when Givati Brigade infantrymen, accompanied by combat engineers and armored units, entered an area near Beit Hanun to clear the area of militants firing Qassam rockets against communities in the Negev. During the operation, the Givati troops and Palestinian militants exchanged fire, and at one stage IDF observation equipment identified two Palestinians firing at the soldiers. The IDF said that an aircraft fired a missile against the gunmen, and a hit was confirmed.
The Palestinians counter that an Israeli tank fired at the family"s home, even though the gunmen were not nearby. They say that the shell hit the home of the Abu Muatak family as they ate breakfast, killing the mother Miyasar and her four children: Salah, 4, Musad, 18 months, Hanaa, 3, and Rudeynah, 6. The Palestinians say that the blast also killed a gunman near the house, who is believed to have been a member of Islamic Jihad.
Olmert told the cabinet "We feel great remorse for every single citizen that is hurt, but we are also saddened by the fact that Israeli citizens have been getting injured for years. We feel remorse when a boy from Sderot must have his leg amputated. We feel remorse that Israeli citizens have had to live under a ceaseless terrorist threat for numerous years, a threat that has disrupted their lives.
"It saddens us that they have turned their people into an inseparable part of the war," Olmert continued, referring to Hamas, which he said "exposes Gazan citizens to what is sometimes an unavoidable possibility, that they will be injured as a result of the Israeli need to defend its public."
Israeli Arab MK Ahmed Tibi, who was quoted Monday as saying Defense Minister Ehud Barak bore direct responsibility for the Gaza deaths, dismissed Olmert"s expression of remorse as "meaningless."
The prime minister"s remarks were but "a typical Israeli response," Tibi said.