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Israeli Spokesman: 'We Had To Respond'

An Israeli government spokesman says the country's ground operation in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip could "end tomorrow — if we can be assured that the civilian population in the southern part of our country will no longer be on the receiving end of these terrible Hamas rockets."

Mark Regev tells NPR's Guy Raz that Israel's objective in the operation launched Saturday after days of airstrikes is "ultimately defensive."

"We want to protect the civilian population in the southern part of Israel that's been on the receiving end of rocket after rocket launched by Hamas in Gaza," he says.

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Regev says the Israelis have learned from mistakes in their previous attempts to halt rocket attacks from Gaza.

"I think we've thought this operation through clearly," he says. "We didn't want this operation, but when Hamas threw out the cease-fire, when Hamas launched a barrage of rockets against Israel that reached a crescendo on Christmas Day — when we had in one 24-hour period some 80 rockets and mortar shells and missiles fired into Israel — we had to respond and we are."

In the first week of fighting, more than 400 Palestinians were killed, while four Israelis were killed by rocket fire. The violence in Gaza has sparked protests around the world.

Regev says the conflict has highlighted a growing gap between Hamas and the larger Arab world.

"Despite the natural tendency that's always there in times of conflict for the Arab world to close ranks, this time we've seen leaders from countries like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, as well as the Palestinian leaders themselves, criticize Hamas," Regev says. "No one understands why Hamas threw out the cease-fire. The people of Gaza, they want to live in peace — they don't want this violence, just as we didn't want this violence."

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The situation has been compared to Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 2006, which a government report has called a fiasco. But Regev says the comparison's not such a bad thing.

"To be fair, since the end of our war in Lebanon in 2006 — and I know there were mishaps; I know there were problems — but since that war was concluded, our northern frontier has been absolutely quiet. Hezbollah hasn't fired a single rocket into Israel," he says. "So if this operation in the south finished in a similar way, that wouldn't be the end of the world."

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