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We have no quarrel with the people of Gaza ... we are exercising our right to self-defence

Last Monday night, Irit Sheetrit had just heard the rocket warning siren and run to the nearest bus shelter in the port city of Ashdod (population 190,000). The shelter did not save her. The powerful Grad rocket, fired from Gaza by Hamas, slammed into it, killing the 39-year-old mother of four and injuring four others.

Earlier that day, Hani Elmahadi was killed, and 14 others injured, by a similar rocket which hit a construction site in Ashkelon (population 120,000) where they worked. These deaths followed those of others in southern Israel in previous days.

These incidents are only the tip of a huge iceberg of suffering. The rockets which killed these people are only three of 8,000 rockets and mortars which have been fired at Israel since 2001. All are fired with the intention to kill and maim, and, indeed, many have done so. For almost eight years, Israeli citizens have been under daily attack from Gaza by Hamas and other terrorist groups.

Since August 2005, when Israel withdrew all its soldiers and all 9,000 Israeli residents from the Gaza Strip for the sake of peace, the attacks have only escalated. More than 5,000 rockets and mortar shells have been fired since that date at Israeli civilian communities in the south of Israel. Only last week, hundreds of missiles and mortars hit these towns and cities, including 80 rockets launched on a single day.

Israel has tried everything to bring calm without using force. We agreed to a six-month truce brokered by Egypt last June. Despite violations of this by Hamas, which continued to attack Israel and smuggle in weapons and ammunition, we held to the truce. We also made it clear that we were interested in renewing it. It was Hamas that formally brought it to an end and intensified its attacks.

Monday's tragedies also tell us something about the escalation of Hamas's war against Israeli civilians. Ashkelon is 11 miles from Gaza; Ashdod is 24 miles. These are not border communities, but bustling cities in Israel's heartland. For a long time, they were out of range of the Kassam rockets fired from Gaza. Hamas, however, took advantage of the truce to smuggle in the more powerful Grad rockets and boasted about extending the range of their attacks.

In 2008, they succeeded in hitting Ashkelon a number of times, including the power station which supplies most of Gaza's electricity. Monday's rocket strike on Ashdod means that 650,000 Israeli civilians are now living within the range of Hamas missiles.

The missiles kill Israeli civilians, injure many more, come close to killing children in schoolyards and school buses, hit hospitals, destroy homes and businesses, disrupt economic activity and make normal life impossible. The missiles do not discriminate between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel, between young and old, soldier and civilian.

Traumatised

Thousands have been left traumatised: in Sderot, the town most often under attack, one-third of the population has been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. Warning sirens in Israel give 15 seconds to run for cover. It is only due to a well-organised system of shelters and warning mechanisms that Israeli civilian deaths and injuries have not been much higher.

How would Irish people react if a similar situation existed here? Let us suppose that the people of the Border counties were under relentless missile attack, year after year, from a terrorist organisation based across the Border.

Would an Irish Government sit idly by and refuse to carry out the first duty of every state -- to defend its citizens? I think an Irish Government would be under extreme pressure from its citizens to exercise the right to self-defence -- the same right enjoyed by every sovereign state.

Israel has shown utmost restraint for seven years. But today there is no other option than a military operation. The systematic bombing of the people in Israel's towns and cities amounts to collective punishment of the Israeli people. This military operation is the exercise of our basic right to self-defence.

The suffering of civilians on both sides of this conflict is tragic. Unfortunately, in any military action, it is likely that civilians will be accidentally killed and injured, especially when Hamas cynically places its military installations near homes and schools. But Israel is making strenuous efforts to minimise civilian casualties. Unlike Hamas, which targets Israeli civilians indiscriminately, Israel focuses only on military targets. As Hamas itself has admitted, the great majority of those killed in Gaza are its own operatives.

The elected leader of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, has blamed Hamas for bringing this crisis unnecessarily on the Palestinian people. Egypt's foreign minister has also put the responsibility for triggering the current situation on the shoulders of Hamas.

This is a conflict not of Israel's making. Its 2005 pullout from Gaza was meant to create an opportunity for peace. The idea was that Gaza would be the beginning of a future Palestinian state. Instead, Hamas took control of Gaza, established a brutal dictatorship there and turned the area into an armed camp and a terrorist base from which to attack Israel.

In launching its attacks, it uses its own citizens as human shields by putting its weapon stores and rocket launchers in the midst of civilian areas.

We have no quarrel with the people of Gaza; they are not our enemies. Hamas is a terrorist organisation that does not represent the real interests of the Palestinian people. Rather, it follows a radical Islamist agenda which is committed to destroying the state of Israel and that threatens peace in the wider region.

While tackling the Hamas terrorist threat, Israel will also continue to pursue the negotiations that have been going on with the legitimate Palestinian Authority to achieve a two-state solution: the state of Israel as the homeland for the Jewish people, and a future Palestinian state as the homeland for the Palestinian people, living side by side in peace and security.