Livni Tells ABC News Why Israel Rejected Cease-fire

Foreign Minister: Cease-fire could put Hamas in a "better position" to strike.

December 31, 2008, 6:36 AM

JERUSALEM, Dec. 31, 2008 — -- Israel rejected international calls for a cease-fire today because Hamas fighters would "abuse" it to put themselves "in a better position for the next attack," Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told ABC News.

In an interview with ABC News' chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos, Livni said the cease-fire was unnecessary because Israel is keeping the border "crossings open during this operation" to allow "humanitarian aid to enter the Gaza Strip."

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner had been pushing for a 48-hour cessation to hostilities to allow in food, medicine and supplies to help the 1.5 million Palestinians trapped in Gaza. Much of the international community, including the United States, has been urging Israel and Hamas to find a way to end the violence.

Although poor weather hampered visibility, Israel carried out missile strikes for the fifth consecutive day, targeting tunnels used to smuggle arms and supplies in through Egypt.

At the same time, Hamas fired more than 65 rockets and mortar shells into southern Israel, with five reaching as far as the city of Beersheva, 22 miles from Gaza. A Grad rocket fired from Gaza crashed through the ceiling of a Beersheva classroom this morning, which authorities had miraculously just called to evacuate.

"We need to change realities to stop the firing of rockets at Israel," Livni said in the face of the attacks. "At the end of the day, Hamas-controlled ... Gaza is a problem to Israel, a problem to the Palestinians and a problem to the entire region."

Livni would not rule out ordering Israeli armor and troops, which are massing outside Gaza, to launch a ground attack as well.

"I don't know yet. ... We are making our decisions on a daily basis," she told Stephanopoulos.

Livni indicated that the Gaza offensive is not about to be called off.

"We have a success, but of course it is not enough yet," she said.

The foreign minister, whose Kadima Party is running in national elections six months away, said a key aim of Israel is to "change the equation" with Hamas. Livni said Israel has succeeded at that.

"Hamas knows now that Israel is not willing to accept a situation in which its citizens come under attack. Israel is not going to show restraint when it comes to the safety of its citizens," she said.

Appearing from a bunker in Gaza, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Hanieyh set his own conditions for a cease-fire.

"First, Israel must stop the aggression, lift the siege on Gaza and open the border crossings," he said.

Both sides want a cease-fire and to put an end to the violence, but only under their conditions. For both, a cease-fire wouldn't be a success unless they emerged from the fight appearing victorious to their people and to the international community.

President Bush spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert by phone today to make a personal appeal for peace, but the two men did not discuss any timetable for Israel to cease its airstrikes into Gaza.

"President Bush thinks that Hamas needs to stop firing rockets, and that is what will be the first step in a cease-fire," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

Olmert assured Bush that Israel would target only Hamas, and that it's trying to avoid civilian casualties.

"We have to achieve a solution that will mean the civilian population of southern Israel no longer lives in constant fear of an incoming Hamas rocket," said Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

A source close to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said Bush pressed both sides for a cease-fire and took a more neutral stance on the current fighting than he has in the past, when he staunchly backed Israel. Abbas' administration governs the West Bank but has no authority in Gaza, where the rival group Hamas rules. The White House has designated Hamas a terrorist organization and has no contact with it.

Even as Israel rejected the possibility of a cease-fire, it opened the door to increased humanitarian aid into Gaza, allowing 93 trucks filled with food, medical supplies and generators into Gaza today. This followed a caravan of 96 trucks Tuesday. Nevertheless, life in Gaza is becoming more difficult, with shortages of basic food, like bread, causing people to line up in the streets.

Also this morning the first wave of sick and injured Palestinians was allowed to cross the border into Israel so people could get medical attention. All except one of the 22 allowed in were people who had chronic illnesses who were being treated in Israel before the current hostilities.

Overnight Israel kept up its relentless targeting of Hamas offices.

For another night the Israeli Air Force bombed the office of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, which it called "a center for the planning, support and financing of terrorist activities against Israel."

Israeli missiles also struck the Hamas Interior Ministry and 35 other targets including tunnels through which it says Hamas transports weapons and fighters into Gaza.

Medical Workers Killed in Airstrikes

The Israelis said they also attacked a mosque today in Gaza City that was used to store missiles, and the strike set off numerous secondary explosions. It was the sixth mosque hit in the Israeli offensive that the Israelis say were used to house weapons.

Hamas' rocket capabilities may have been affected by Israel's assault. On Tuesday, there were a total of 65 Hamas rocket attacks into Israel. Today, only a handful of rockets have been fired at Israel. Two Israelis were injured in the southern city of Ashkelon.

In Gaza, the death toll has now risen to 390 and the number of wounded has crossed 1,800. A U.N. representative told ABC News that at least 42 of those killed were children and that 25 percent of those killed were civilians.

Early today, two medical workers were killed in an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City, near the Jabalia refugee camp. Witnesses say the two workers were killed while treating injuries from an earlier airstrike.

At Shifa, Gaza's biggest hospital, the injured poured in with each new airstrike. Since Saturday, the hospital has treated more than 200 people with traumatic injuries, even though its intensive care unit is designed to serve 25.

On Tuesday, medical supplies in the hard-hit Gaza enclave were few and food stocks were rapidly being depleted. Shifa's Dr. Kamal Abada told ABC News that the hospital was running especially low on essentials like bandages, sutures and critical medicine.

On Saturday night the hospital parking lot was hit. Shifa workers collected the injured. Because the hospital's glass windows were shattered in the attacks, the nights get so cold that attendants have to cover the windows with plastic sheeting.

Dr. Rawea Awad is now a patient after she suffered a massive head injury on her way to the hospital. Abada admitted that he and his colleagues are afraid to come to work, but he said they are more afraid to stay home.

Hundreds of Israeli Arabs have been demonstrating, sometimes violently, against the ongoing Israeli airstrikes in Gaza. Israel's National Police spokesman, Micky Rosenfeld today confirmed that 300 Israeli Arabs have been arrested across the country since hostilities erupted on Saturday.

Most of the arrests have been of individuals or small groups for infractions such as throwing rocks or fighting with police, Rosenfeld said.

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