TEXT-Netanyahu calls for Hamas's removal in Gaza

JERUSALEM, Dec 30 (Reuters) - Following are excerpts from a Reuters interview on Tuesday with Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who defended a Gaza offensive he said is aimed at ending a Hamas rocket threat on Israel.

Q. What will it take to do that?

A. "It will take military action. It will take a united people. In this case there is no difference between the opposition and the coalition. We are united in this, to ward off this criminal assault on our people. I don't think any country would allow its cities to be rocketed, its citizens to be bombed, its children to be killed and maimed by indiscriminate attacks on the civilian population. It's just got to stop?"

Q. And yet civilians are being killed in Gaza?

A. "I think the international community is right to be concerned about the death of civilians. This is precisely the point. The Hamas is deliberately targeting civilians, deliberately hiding behind civilians. That's a double war crime in itself, and very different from us. We have tried to minimise civilian casualties. When they fire into Ashdod, one of our biggest seaport cities, or into Ashkelon, another city, they hope to get civilian casualties, they hope to get a kindergarten, they hope to get a school. When we go after the terrorists themselves, we hope not to have any incidental civilian casualties."

Q. Israeli ground forces are massing along the area, in an area where journalists are not allowed to be right now, where they can't see what's happening. Isn't Israel afraid that a ground offensive will result in more civilian casualties, along with Israeli casualties, and bring international pressure?

A. "I am not going to get into the tactics. There is a goal and the goal is to remove this Iranian-sponsored Hamas terrorist base which is right now hitting the suburbs of Tel Aviv ... the action that is required is something that removes this Hamas regime from the scene. Ultimately we have no other choice."

Q. Is Israel seeking the removal of the Hamas government in Gaza ... in this operation. Or is this something it is going to pursue further along the line?"

A. "I think ultimately we need to do this. Whether it can be done right now is something I don't think we should discuss here. But it should be discussed because ultimately, if we don't do it, then Hamas will rearm itself ... Hamas openly declared its goal to eradicate the state of Israel from the face of the earth."

Q. In the short-term, what needs to happen. Can there be a ceasefire with Hamas?

A. "I think we want to make sure that the firing of rockets stops, but also that the capability to fire future rockets is also stopped."

Q. And how long can this take? Will it be weeks, days?

A. "I don't know. I think what is important is the goal and not how long it takes to achieve."

Q. And if you're elected prime minister in the coming election, will removing the Hamas administration in Gaza be a key goal of your government?

A. "Yes."

Q. And how would you go about it?

A. "With all the means necessary to achieve it."

Q. What about the peace talks with the Palestinians, with Mahmoud Abbas, who has been critical of Hamas? Will you be pursuing peace talks?

A. "Absolutely. I believe there are Palestinians who want peace and Palestinians who are terrorised by Hamas. In fact, I think the people of Gaza are being terrorised by Hamas itself. They're held hostage ... I mean Hamas ... puts its arms caches, its rocket launchers in dense civilian populations. They're basically using these people as human shields ... My goal is to defeat Hamas and to bring up peace with those Palestinians who want to live in peace."

Q. And can that be done without targeting Hamas leaders specifically? Do you see Israel targeting Hamas leaders in this operation?

A. "I don't want to get into the tactics. I think this Hamas regime has to go."