Israel hits Gaza again, moves tanks to border

The Baltimore Sun

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Israeli aircraft pounded the Gaza Strip for a second day, increasing the death toll to nearly 300, as Israeli troops and tanks massed yesterday along the border and the government said that it had called up reserves for a possible ground operation.

The continued airstrikes, which Israel said were being conducted in retaliation for sustained rocket fire from Gaza into its territory, unleashed a furious reaction across the Arab world, raising fears of greater instability in the region.

Much of the anger was also directed at Egypt, seen by Hamas and some nearby governments as having acceded to Israel's military action by sealing its border with Gaza and forcing back at gunpoint many Palestinians who were trying to escape the destruction.

Witnesses at the Rafah border crossing described a chaotic scene as young men tried to force their way into Egypt amid sporadic exchanges of gunfire between Hamas and Egyptian forces. Egyptian state television reported that one Egyptian border guard was killed by a Hamas gunman. A Palestinian was killed by an Egyptian guard near Rafah, Reuters reported.

Medical services in Gaza, stretched to the breaking point after 18 months of Israeli sanctions, were on the verge of collapse, officials said.

Dr. Moaiya Hassanain of the Gaza Health Ministry said more than 290 people had been killed and more than 800 wounded in two days of fighting.

At Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, women wailed as they searched for relatives among bodies laid out on the floor. Given the dearth of medical facilities, not much could be done for the seriously wounded and it was "better to be brought in dead," a doctor said.

The International Committee for the Red Cross appealed yesterday for urgent humanitarian assistance, including medical supplies, to be allowed to enter Gaza. Israeli officials said that some aid had been allowed in through one of the crossings. On Saturday, Egypt had temporarily opened the Rafah crossing to allow the wounded to be taken to Egyptian hospitals.

Israel made a strong push to justify the attacks, saying that it had been forced into military action to defend its citizens. At the same time, heated statements from the supreme leader of Iran and the leader of Hezbollah expressed strong support for Hamas.

Across Gaza, families huddled indoors as Israeli jets streaked overhead. Residents said there were long electricity blackouts and that they had no cooking gas. Some ventured out to receive rationed bread at bakeries or to brave the streets to claim their dead at hospitals. There were few mass funerals; rather, families buried the dead in small ceremonies.

At dusk yesterday, Israeli fighter jets bombed more than 40 tunnels along Gaza's border with Egypt. The Israeli military said the tunnels that were attacked, on the Gaza side of the border, were used for smuggling weapons, explosives and fugitives. Gazans also use many of them to import consumer goods and fuel to get around the Israeli-imposed economic blockade.

During the past two days, Israeli jets have destroyed at least 30 targets in Gaza, including the main security compound and prison in Gaza City, known as the Saraya, metal workshops throughout Gaza that are suspected of manufacturing rockets, and Hamas military posts.

Shlomo Brom, a former senior Israeli military official, said it was the deadliest force ever used in decades of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.

"Since Hamas took over Gaza [in June 2007], it has become a war between two states, and in war between states, more force is used," he said.

Since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, after 38 years of military occupation, Israeli forces have repeatedly returned to the territory to hunt militants. However, Israel has shied away from retaking the entire strip, for fear of getting bogged down in urban warfare.

Hamas said Israel bombed a government ministry compound and Gaza's Islamic University, an important symbol and training ground, late last night. The Hamas-owned television station Al-Aqsa was hit, as was a mosque that the Israeli military said was being used as a terrorist base.

Israel appeared to be settling in for a longer haul. In Jerusalem, Israel's Cabinet approved a call-up of 6,500 reserve soldiers, raising fears of an impending ground offensive. Israel has doubled the number of troops on the Gaza border since Saturday and also deployed an artillery battery. It was not clear, though, whether the deployment was meant to pressure Hamas or whether Israel is determined to send ground troops.

Speaking before the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, said the army "will deepen and broaden its actions as needed" and "will continue to act." Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel's goal was not to reoccupy Gaza, which it left unilaterally in 2005, but to "restore normal life and quiet to residents of the south."

Israel's military intelligence chief said Hamas' ability to fire rockets had been reduced by 50 percent. Hamas rocket fire dropped off sharply, from more than 130 on Saturday to just over 20 yesterday. Still, Hamas continues to command about 20,000 fighters.

Tzipi Livni, Israel's foreign minister, said on Fox News Sunday that the operation "is needed in order to change the realities on the ground and to give peace and quiet to the citizens in southern Israel."

Militants in Gaza fired barrages of rockets and mortar shells farther into Israel yesterday. One rocket fell in Gan Yavneh, a village near the major port city of Ashdod, almost 20 miles north of Gaza. Two others landed in the coastal city of Ashkelon. Several Israelis were wounded.

Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for Hamas, told reporters that Israel had started a war but would not be able to choose how it would end. He called for revenge in the form of strikes reaching "deep into the Zionist entity, using all means," including suicide attacks.

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority and the leader of Fatah, blamed Hamas yesterday for the bloodshed in Gaza and said it could have been prevented. The hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens within rocket range of Gaza have been instructed by the authorities to stay close to shelters.

In Lebanon, the leader of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, put his fighters on alert, expressing strong support for Hamas and saying that Israel might try to wage a two-front war, as it did in 2006. He called for a mass demonstration in Beirut today. He also denounced Egypt's leaders. "If you don't open the borders, you are accomplices in the killing," he said in a televised speech.

Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, condemned the silence of some Arab countries, which he said had prepared the grounds for the catastrophe, the ISNA news agency reported.

"The horrible crime of the Zionist regime in Gaza has once again revealed the bloodthirsty face of this regime from disguise," he said in a statement. "But worse than this catastrophe is the encouraging silence of some Arab countries who claim to be Muslim," he said, in an apparent reference to Egypt and Jordan.

Egypt has mediated talks between Israel and the Palestinians and between Hamas and Fatah, leaving it open to criticism that it is too willing to work with Israel. In turn, Egypt and other Western-allied Sunni Arab nations are deeply opposed to Hezbollah and Hamas, which they see as extensions of Iran, their Shiite nemesis.

Across the region, the Israeli strikes were being broadcast almost continually on Arab satellite networks, in grisly detail.

In the Syrian capital, Damascus, a large group of protesters marched to Yusuf al Azmeh Square, where they chanted slogans and burned Israeli and American flags.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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