March 2, 2006

Israel’s Olmert orders “iron fist” against militants

By Megan Goldin

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's interim Prime Minister Ehud
Olmert vowed on Thursday to use an "iron fist" against
Palestinian militants as polls showed his party's lead slipping
less than a month before a general election.

A spike in violence has increased pressure on Olmert to
show he is as ready to take tough military action as was Ariel
Sharon, who remains comatose after a stroke two months ago that
propelled Olmert to the front of the election campaign.

"We will use an iron fist against any attempt to renew
terrorist action," Olmert told a news conference. "We will use
drastic measures on all the roads, in all sensitive areas."

Militants have stepped up attacks in recent days, saying
they are responding to Israeli raids.

On Thursday, a Palestinian stabbed a truck driver in the
neck at a factory near Jerusalem, a day after shootings in
which one Jewish settler was killed in the occupied West Bank
and another Israeli was wounded.

Gunmen have also launched rockets from the Gaza Strip.

Political pundits say a rise in attacks -- especially if
there are suicide bombings -- could put a big dent in Kadima's
lead ahead of the March 28 general election.

A poll published in Haaretz daily on Thursday showed Kadima
winning 37 of parliament's 120 seats, down from 39 last month
and 44 seats predicted in a survey taken at the end of January.

Haaretz quoted Kadima officials as saying the party was
losing ground over security issues due to a public perception
that career politician Olmert was not as well equipped to deal
with such matters as ex-general Sharon.

Kadima was founded by Sharon in November when he left the
right-wing Likud party to free his hand for peace deals and
capitalize on the popularity of a Gaza pullout. Olmert assumed
power after Sharon fell into a coma from a January 4 stroke.


Israeli worries about security have intensified since the
Palestinian election victory of Hamas Islamist militants in
January, though the group that is formally committed to
destroying Israel has largely followed a year-old truce.

Stressing his security expertise on Thursday, Olmert said
he had personally ordered air strikes against Palestinian
militants involved in firing rockets into Israel from the Gaza

"Not a few times terrorists who were about to fire rockets
were liquidated before they could fire them and it was based on
my orders, sometimes my personal orders," he said.

Khalil Abu Laila, a senior Hamas leader in Gaza, said
Olmert's tough talk was nothing new.

"We consider this matter in sync with Zionist terrorism and
escalations against our Palestinian people. We will continue to
stand strong in the face of these attacks and threats against
our Palestinian people," Abu Laila said.

Some 10 militants were killed in Israeli air strikes in
Gaza last month and eight Palestinians, including at least
three gunmen, died in a raid on a West Bank refugee camp.

On Wednesday, a top Islamic Jihad leader was killed in a
car blast in Gaza which the militant Islamic group blamed on
Israel, vowing revenge. The Israeli army said it was not to

In a jab at Likud, Olmert suggested Palestinian militants
might want a repeat of a 1996 election when a series of suicide
bombings led to Likud overwhelming the center-left Labour Party
favorite on election day.

Likud received a boost in opinion polls on Wednesday when
leader Benjamin Netanyahu defanged the party's unpopular
central committee by cajoling it to give up the right to select
its list of candidates for parliament.

Olmert played down the importance of a visit Hamas leaders
will make to Moscow on Friday, the first talks between the
militant group and a major power.

He said Russian President Vladimir Putin had personally
assured him Russia would demand Hamas renounce violence,
abandon its charter calling for Israel's destruction and
embrace existing peace agreements.

(Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan)