Thousands of Israeli soldiers supported by helicopter gunships and columns of tanks bisected the Gaza Strip yesterday, isolating its largest city amid fierce clashes on multiple fronts with militant fighters.
At least 35 Palestinians died in confrontations with Israeli troops and from missile strikes and artillery barrages, according to local medical sources. More than 500 Palestinians have been killed since Dec. 27, when Israel began its current campaign against Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza. At least 2,000 Palestinians have been wounded.
In the face of mounting international calls for a truce, including harsh criticism from the head of the United Nations, Israeli leaders pledged to continue their campaign to end the threat of rocket fire by Gaza militants at southern Israeli cities and towns.
"This operation was unavoidable," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his Cabinet yesterday.
Olmert said the campaign, which started with a week of punishing airstrikes and escalated to a land incursion Saturday evening, was needed to "change the security reality in the south."
Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, however, continued firing rockets and mortar shells into southern Israel. At least 40 rockets were launched yesterday, causing widespread panic but only minor injuries, according to the Israeli army.
Israeli officials say that about 900,000 of their citizens are within range of the rockets and live in fear of sudden attack.
Throughout the Gaza Strip, most of the enclave's 1.5 million Palestinian residents huddled indoors for safety, most venturing out only to line up for dwindling supplies of bread and household goods.
Dr. Moaiya Hassanain of Gaza City's main Shifa Hospital said more than half the day's known casualties were civilians, including a mother and her four children killed by an Israeli tank shell east of Gaza City. The militant casualty count was probably much higher, Hassanain said, but it was too risky for ambulances and rescue crews to approach the conflict zone.
One ambulance, funded by the international aid organization Oxfam, was struck by an Israeli shell while trying to evacuate injured from the front-line community of Beit Lahiya, the organization said. The blast killed one paramedic; a second paramedic lost his foot.
"The incident shows yet again that trying to fight a military campaign in the densely populated streets and alleys of the Gaza Strip will inevitably lead to civilian casualties. There are no safe areas, and Gazans who want to flee the fighting have been prevented from leaving the Strip," Oxfam Country Director John Prideaux-Brune said in Jerusalem.
At least two Israeli armored thrusts sliced deep into the narrow coastal territory, essentially cutting off Gaza City's approximately 400,000 residents from the rest of the strip. One force fought into the edges of the Jabaliya refugee camp, north of Gaza City; a second force pushed into the abandoned Jewish settlement of Netzarim, several miles south of Gaza City. As of late last night, Israeli forces had yet to enter any of Gaza's major population centers. Any attempt to do so probably would prompt a fierce street-to-street battle against militant forces with intimate knowledge of the dense urban terrain.
The Israeli army announced that one of its soldiers had been killed and another seriously wounded in an exchange of gunfire near Jabaliya, and that 18 soldiers had been moderately injured. An army spokesman said "dozens of Hamas gunmen had been hit" but would not speculate on how many had been killed or wounded.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon conveyed his "extreme concern and disappointment" over the death toll in a phone call to Olmert and called for an immediate end to the operation, according to a U.N. statement yesterday.
A delegation led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to arrive in New York today to press the U.N. Security Council to demand a cease-fire. President George W. Bush is scheduled to meet with Ban tomorrow to discuss the Gaza crisis.
Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have refused to criticize the Israeli campaign or push for an early end to hostilities. Yesterday, Olmert said he was "greatly encouraged" by Bush's position.
At an emergency consultation of the Security Council on Saturday night, the United States blocked approval of a statement demanded by Arab countries that would have called for an immediate cease-fire. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, echoing Israeli concerns, said that a cease-fire needed to be "durable, sustainable and not time-limited."