Israel warns wider offensive in works

The Baltimore Sun

Israeli aircraft pounded Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip yesterday and scattered leaflets warning of an escalation in attacks, but there was no sign that its forces had begun a major advance on the militant group's urban strongholds.

A senior Hamas commander and seven members of a Palestinian family were among those killed on the 15th day of Israel's thundering assault, which also damaged a hospital. Palestinian militants fired 15 rockets into Israel, wounding three people.

Diplomatic efforts to end the fighting sputtered as Egypt rebuffed a proposal to place international forces along its border to help prevent weapons-smuggling into Gaza. Israel says the offensive is aimed at stopping years of rocket fire from Gaza and will continue until weapons pipelines into the Hamas-ruled coastal enclave are cut off.

The warning of a "new phase" of the assault, which has killed more than 800 Palestinians, came in leaflets dropped over Gaza City and Rafah and in automated calls to Palestinians' cell phones.

"The [Israel Defense Forces] will escalate the operation in the Gaza Strip," the messages said. "The IDF is not working against the people of Gaza but against Hamas and the terrorists only." The leaflets urged Gaza residents not to help Hamas.

Although there was no sign of an advance on the ground, the warnings heightened the panic that has gripped Gaza's 1.5 million people since the offensive began Dec. 27.

In the day's bloodiest incident, seven members of the Abed Rabbo clan were killed in the late morning shelling of their grocery store in a village just east of Jabaliya that bears the family's name.

Ziad Barqouni, an ambulance driver, said neighbors told him the shelling had come from an Israeli tank several blocks away. Barqouni said he saw an Israeli helicopter firing into the village as he approached.

The Israeli army denied carrying out attacks in the area at the time but said its ground forces killed Amir Mansi, commander of Hamas' rocket-launching teams in Gaza City. Hamas confirmed his death.

Twelve other Palestinian civilians were reported killed yesterday.

Negotiations seemed to make scant progress. Egyptian officials held cease-fire talks with Hamas officials in Cairo yesterday. The group said it would reject any border-security arrangement that infringed on the right of resistance against Israel.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch reported that its researchers had observed multiple air-bursts of white phosphorous from Israeli artillery Friday and yesterday. The group said the army appeared to be using the smoke to conceal its operations. But it urged Israel to refrain from using the substance, which can ignite houses and severely burn the skin.

Also yesterday, tens of thousands of people demonstrated in European cities and Lebanon, shouting protests against the Israeli offensive in Gaza.

Protesters burned Israeli flags in Sweden and threw shoes at the U.S. consulate in Edinburgh, Scotland. In London, three officers were hurt when demonstrators hurled shoes and placards at police outside the Israeli Embassy. Scores of marches were held across France, the biggest of them in the capital, where police estimated 30,000 people took part.

Richard Boudreaux reported from Jerusalem. Rushdi Abu Alouf reported from Gaza City. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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