Olmert apologizes for civilian deaths
Israeli prime minister pledges to continue attacks on militants
Thursday, June 22, 2006; Posted: 10:53 p.m. EDT (02:53 GMT)
JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledged to continue attacks against Palestinian militants, despite apologizing twice for the growing numbers of civilian casualties from Gaza airstrikes.
Speaking Thursday evening at an economic conference in Jerusalem, Olmert apologized "from the depths of my being" for civilian deaths in recent airstrikes in Gaza, but he added, "Israel will continue to carry out targeted attacks against terrorists and those who try to harm Israeli citizens."
He said, "I am deeply sorry for the residents of Gaza, but the lives, security and well-being of the residents of Sderot is no less important," naming an Israeli town next to Gaza that has been pelted by rockets fired from Gaza by militants. (Watch Israelis lament deaths, defend strikes -- 2:26)
Olmert spoke after returning from Jordan, where he met informally with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Olmert said he would make every effort to reach agreement with the Palestinians, singling out the moderate Abbas as a negotiating partner.
But he said Israel could not talk to the Palestinian government headed by the militant Islamic Hamas, "which leans on terrorism."
"Only if we determine that there is no partner on the other side, we will begin to implement unilateral measures" to ensure Israel's Jewish majority, he said, a reference to his plan to withdraw from most of the West Bank and set Israel's border there.
Olmert said Israel is prepared to make significant concessions for peace, building on Israel's withdrawal from Gaza last summer. "I intend to continue this pragmatic and practical policy," he said.
In Jordan earlier for a meeting of Nobel Prize winners hosted by Jordan's King Abdullah II, Olmert apologized for the civilian casualties.
On Wednesday an errant Israeli missile struck a house in the southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis, killing two people inside. Last week eight bystanders were killed in an airstrike that killed two militants.
Also, Palestinians blame Israel for a beach explosion that killed eight, but Israel denies responsibility.
Referring to the civilians killed in the airstrikes, Olmert said, "It is against our policy, and I am very, very sorry," after a breakfast meeting Thursday with Abbas in the ancient Jordanian town of Petra.
After returning to the West Bank city of Ramallah, Abbas said the two discussed how to prepare for a forthcoming meeting.
"Preparations for the meeting will begin next week," he said.
Leaving the meeting, Olmert nodded to reporters when asked if he would meet Abbas again.
Officials on both sides said the meeting would take place in several weeks.
Abdullah "stressed the importance of confidence-building measures that would facilitate a resumption of peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis," according to a palace statement obtained by The Associated Press.
He encouraged both parties to accept the U.S.-backed road map, which calls for an end to violence and for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Israel doubts Abbas' ability to deliver a final peace deal, but under international pressure, Olmert has agreed to meet with Abbas and try to get long-stalled peace talks back on track.
Should that fail, he plans to unilaterally withdraw from large chunks of the West Bank, but not all of the territory, as the Palestinians want Israel to do.
Abbas has been seeking to persuade Hamas to accept a proposal that implicitly recognizes Israel as a way to restart peace talks and end a crippling world aid boycott. If Hamas continues to reject the proposal, Abbas plans to bring the plan to Palestinian voters in a July 26 referendum.
Abbas said Thursday that he hoped his dialogue with Hamas would "reach a positive outcome ... so the world can interact with us and end its siege."
In violence late Thursday, Israeli forces killed a Palestinian militant during a raid in Ramallah, security officials said. The military had no immediate comment.