AP INTERVIEW: Israel's Peres Defends Airstrikes

Israeli President Shimon Peres said Tuesday that the killing of Palestinian civilians by air raids on Gaza presents a moral dilemma, but argued there is scant alternative as long as the Islamic militants who rule the strip refuse to stop sustained rocket fire against Israel.

"There is a moral problem, but I don't have a moral answer to it," the 1994 Nobel Peace laureate told The Associated Press. "If they are shooting at us, and don't let our mothers and their children ... have a full night's sleep, what can we do?"

A crusader for peace spending his last days in office justifying a war, the 90-year-old Peres seemed somewhat downcast but also doggedly optimistic during the hour-long interview in his book-lined Jerusalem office — predicting Gaza's Hamas rulers will eventually accept a cease-fire because of Palestinians' suffering and also their own isolation in the region.

Earlier Tuesday, Hamas rejected an Egyptian cease-fire proposal that Israel accepted, and exchanges of rocket fire and airstrikes gained momentum, resulting in the first Israeli fatality in nine days of fighting that has killed nearly 200 Palestinians, mostly civilians, although Israel says it targets launch sites and weapons depots.

"I don't see it already finished," Peres said of the proposed truce. "I think there is a division among (Hamas). The situation in Gaza is demanding, terrible, tragic. And they cannot leave it hanging in the air. ... Nobody will feed them for just shooting rockets. ... It's not an economy."

Peres also praised Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, a Hamas rival who controls the autonomy government in the West Bank and who has had a rocky relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Nine months of U.S.-sponsored peace talks between the two broke down two months ago, dampening hopes for Palestinian independence and setting in motion a spiral of violence that led to the current conflagration.

Abbas is a "real and serious leader who is ready for peace — and I do believe we can make peace with him," Peres said, noting that he differs with Netanyahu, who "does not believe that (Abbas) is a proper partner."

The presidency is mostly ceremonial in Israel, where ultimate executive power lies with the more conservative premier. It's a limitation that has bedeviled the outspoken and tireless Peres, who was himself prime minister three brief times over a 70-year career that has also included stops in every senior ministry. He has sometimes seemed literally at pains to bite his tongue.

But with only about a week left in a seven-year presidency that has transformed him into something of a global elder statesman, Peres seemed more willing to push the envelope.

He noted that he also disagreed with Netanyahu's recent suggestion that Israel must retain security control all the way to the Jordan River in order to protect the West Bank from takeover by the radical jihadis wreaking havoc in the region and prevent such a menace from reaching Israel's cities. Peres said Palestine would be able to fend for itself.

"I am in my (position) not supposed to criticize the government, but I don't hide my views," the Polish-born Peres said. "And instead of saying the government is making a mistake, I am saying there are alternatives. ... I'm saying it in the most polite way."

Despite the collapse of peace talks, Peres said he expected the 47-year occupation of Palestinian territories to eventually end.

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