Israeli troops and tanks split the Gaza Strip and ringed its main city on Sunday in an offensive against Hamas that has killed more than 500 Palestinians,many of them civilians. Israeli tanks poured shells and machinegun-fire into suspected militant positions and war planes as Hamas fighters fought back with mortars and rockets.
Hamas fighters kept up rocket salvoes against southern Israel,defying efforts by the Middle East’s most powerful army to stamp out the threat Israel had set out to achieve. European Union foreign policy chiefs launched a mission to seek a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip but acknowledged they faced a difficult task persuading the parties to stop fighting.
At least 42 Palestinians,most of them civilians,were killed on Sunday as Israeli shells slammed into houses and Gaza’s main shopping district,medical sources said. We dont intend neither to occupy Gaza nor to crush Hamas,but to crush terror. And Hamas needs a real and serious lesson. They are now getting it, Israeli President Shimon Peres said in an interview on the ABC News program This Week.
The Saturday night invasion of Hamas-ruled Gaza followed a week of Israeli bombardments from land,sea and air which failed to halt militant Hamas rocket attacks on southern Israel. The offensive’s stated aim is to destroy the militants’ rocket-launching infrastucture. But about 25 rockets were fired at Israel on Sunday,one hitting a house in Sderot and wounding a woman,the Israeli army said.
The Palestinian death toll tallied by Gaza medical officials in the nine days of Operation Cast Lead rose to 512. A UN agency said at least a quarter of the dead were civilians. A Palestinian human rights group put the figure at 40 percent. One Israeli soldier was killed and 32 were wounded in the ground offensive,Israel said. Four Israelis have been killed by the Hamas rocket strikes since December 27. The government did everything before deciding to launch the operation. This is an unavoidable operation, Israeli President Ehud Olmert said. Calls for a ceasefire from the US,Israel’s staunch backer,other foreign governments and the United Nations failed to gain traction over disagreements about its terms.
Israeli tanks and troops virtually cut Gaza in half in a night-time advance on Saturday,and on Sunday were ringing Gaza City itself. Among the Palestinian casualties were five civilians killed and 40 wounded when tank shells slammed into Gaza City’s main shopping area.
Soldiers and Hamas fighters clashed east of the Hamas stronghold of Zeitoun. Israeli aircraft struck targets,including arms smuggling tunnels,weapons depots and mortar squads.
Heavy civilian casualties in the territory packed with 1.5 million people could increase international pressure on Israel to halt its biggest operation in Gaza in four decades. But the fighting also holds political risks for Israeli leaders before a February 10 national election,especially if its forces take heavy casualties in street fighting.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said the ground push was to protect southern Israel from Hamas rocket attacks. It won’t be easy. It won’t be short, said Barak,leader of the centre-left Labour party and a candidate for prime minister in the election. A spokesman for Hamas’s armed wing,the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades,said Israeli troops faced death or capture. The Zionist enemy must know his battle in Gaza is a losing one, spokesman Abu Ubaida said. Hamas said it had captured two Israeli soldiers but the Israeli army denied that.
In New York,the UN Security Council met but diplomats said Washington’s refusal to back a Libyan-drafted demand for an immediate truce had killed the initiative. The US said a ceasefire should take place but must guarantee an end to Hamas rocket strikes.