After apologizing for the IDF’s shelling of Beit Hanoun, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Thursday formally addressed the incident that
left 18 Palestinians dead and also called on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to meet with him without preconditions.
“Abbas is exposed to Hamas’ pressures, and I am willing to sit down with him with no predetermined conditions,” the prime minister said. “He would be surprised to see how far I’m willing to go in the talks.”
Speaking at the Prime Minister’s Conference for Export and International Cooperation in Tel Aviv, Olmert said regarding the Gaza shelling, “It is certainly not a part of Israel’s policy; it is a tragedy that we thoroughly regret.”
I have great respect for Abu Mazen (Abbas). When we will sit around the negotiation table he will be very intransigent," Olmert said in a televised interview aired to people attending the conference.
"He is a Palestinian patriot, not Israeli. He will fight for Palestinian interests like a lion. But he is a decent man, he opposes terror. He is under pressure from terror groups and has no power to oppose them and overpower them. I sent him the message 20 times."
From a historical perspective, Olmert said that the disengagement was a right step. "I am still proud to say that I was among the initiators of the disengagement. But we disengaged. We left and withdrew from there, because I believe that is an important step forward. They cannot say that we are occupying and holding on to parts of Gaza. They have been firing Qassam rockets at us from day one. What more can we do to convince them to sit with us for negotiations and stop firing and firing and firing. In this period they can prosper."
The prime minister warned that he is ready to release many prisoners as a gesture to Abbas, but not to Hamas, in return for the release of Gilad Shalit. "Even before Shalit's abduction, I met (Jordan's king) Abdullah, (Egyptian President Hosni) Mubarak, and (British Prime Minister Tony) Blair and told them that I am ready to release prisoners. I tell the Palestinians today – you don't know how many prisoners you can have if you were to release Shalit. I am ready to release for Abu Mazen but not for Hamas."
Also tonight, like in the past, the prime minister said Israel won the war in Lebanon. "The day we decided to respond to Hizbullah"s provocation, we set three targets: the implementation of United Nations resolution 1559 which was never implemented in order to have the Lebanese Army dispatched and to remove Hizbullah.
Resolution 1701 was implemented and the Lebanese Army and an international army are deployed in southern Lebanon.
"I can say that Hizbullah lost the appetite to fight Israel for many years. You can ask Nasrallah. You ask Nasrallah if they want to return to this experience, they would say that they don't want to experience that for many, many, many years. I heard during the war that there is no more deterrence because of this war. Did we have deterrence against Hizbullah before July 12? There was zero deterrence.
"They tried to kidnap soldiers in January, in March and continued in June and in the end they succeeded in July. They fired rockets. Now ask them again. Now Hizbullah knows. He said that if he would have known about one percent of our response, he wouldn't have started a war. Today there is deterrence. Therefore I believe we won the war."
What about the Syrian front? "I am not opposed to an agreement with Syria. Bashar Assad cannot eat the cake and leave it whole. Someone who supports Hizbullah, Hamas, Khaled Mashaal in terror activities in the Middle East, and who is Iran's most loyal partner while it calls for the destruction of Israel, cannot be a partner in negotiations. It doesn't go together. I am not ready to tell you what he is supposed to get from me. Israel proved in the past that it is ready for serious business."
He consecrated a large part of his speech to the killing of Palestinian civilians in Beit Hanun: "I express my great remorse for yesterday's accident in Beit Hanun, the IDF's mistake firing. That's not Israel's aim. We regret what happened. But, unfortunately that's what happened but I could have also happened from Qassam fire at Sderot and Ashkelon. These are missiles fired deliberately at Israel. What we need to do is to curb the firing of these missiles. But I believe Israel is strong enough to apologize."
"In the Beit Hanun incident, it was simply a mistake. We didn't plan this attack and we killed too many. It is a technical failure in Israeli artillery. This is not our policy. I remember speaking with Kofi Annan a while ago and he said that the Israeli response is disproportionate. I asked him to help me define what is a proportionate response to the firing of 1,000 Qassam rockets at southern communities? Based on what can you measure the extent of your response – according to the hours of insomnia? Based on fear and hysteria?"
Then Olmert moved on to harsher criticism: "Hypocrisy is widespread in some countries. It is true that people measure according to casualties and deaths but most of the deaths are gunmen. About women and children, it happens sometimes … once heard Ronald Rumsfeld speaking about a missile that was fired at terrorists who hid behind civilians and he said: 'What do you want? They hid behind innocent civilians.' I never use this as an excuse. I am explaining to you that this happens sometimes."
He said that military operations against Qassam fire would continue: "We won't fire now artillery fire to avoid unnecessary mistakes. We are trying to avoid harming innocent civilians, but can't guarantee that."