Israel will push forward with its offensive in the Gaza Strip until it "destroys completely" the ruling Hamas militant group, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations said Monday, saying that the operation will continue as long as necessary to reach that goal.
Ambassador Gabriela Shalev also played down international criticism of the offensive and ruled out a return to the terms of a recent cease-fire with Hamas that collapsed in violence over the weekend.
Israel launched the surprise offensive on Saturday after more than a week of intense Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza. More than 360 Palestinians have been killed, including at least women and children, according to the United Nations. Four Israelis have been killed from rocket fire.
Shalev expressed regret for civilian deaths, but said Hamas is responsible for the bloodshed by operating in residential areas and using civilians as "human shields."
"We are very sorry, and really I say it as a mother, as a grandmother ... to speak of children and of women being killed," she said. But "it's only the Hamas to blame."
Since the offensive began, Israeli warplanes have been bombing Gaza around the clock. The army also has activated some 6,500 reservists in preparation for a possible ground invasion. Shalev refused to discuss Israel's war strategy, but said the operation would continue "as long as it takes to dismantle Hamas completely."
"The main goal is to destroy completely this terrorist gang, which makes people on both sides of the border, in Gaza and in Israel, suffer daily," she said.
Shalev would not say whether that would mean toppling the Hamas government, which, with an estimated 20,000 armed men at its disposal, remains firmly in power.
But she said Israel would like to see its moderate negotiating partner, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, regain control of Gaza. Hamas seized power 18 months ago after a power-sharing arrangement with Abbas disintegrated.
The bloodshed has drawn international condemnations and sparked protests throughout the Arab world, including in Jordan and Egypt, two key Israeli allies. On Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon demanded an immediate cease-fire.
Shalev said Israel would not accept a return to the terms of the recent truce, which was repeatedly marred by sporadic Palestinian rocket fire. She noted that Hamas simply used the lull to restock its arsenal.
"What we want this time is a commitment and assurances that Hamas will not shoot any rockets and will not fire on Israeli citizens any more," she said.
Shalev said Israel is "concerned" about the international criticism, and has tried to send messages to the Arab world that it wants peace.
"But first of all, we have the right to defend ourselves and we have the duty to protect our citizens. This comes before the understanding, which we hope to receive, of the international community," she said.
The timing of the offensive has raised speculation that it was politically motivated. It comes just weeks before an Israeli election and the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama. Some Israelis have expressed fears that Obama would not be
as supportive as President George W. Bush.
Shalev said Israel's rival politicians have come together in unity over the offensive, and noted that when Obama visited Israel last summer, he voiced support for the country's right to defend itself.