Israeli troops stepped up attacks on Hamas fighters in the outskirts of Gaza City yesterday, as the death toll of Palestinians in recent fighting surpassed 900 and Hamas militants fired a new volley of rockets into southern Israel.
On the 17th day since Israel launched its incursion into the Gaza Strip, the conflict appeared to be reaching a crucial threshold that could result in escalated combat or a negotiated resolution.
In a televised statement from a hide-out presumed to be in Gaza, a top leader of the battered Hamas regime mixed defiance with language suggesting openness to diplomacy. Ismail Haniyeh, who was prime minister under a previous Palestinian unity government, looked tired and cited Quranic verses and prayers during the speech aired by Hamas-run TV, his second since the conflict began.
"We deal positively with any initiative that can end the aggression and allow the withdrawal of the occupation troops and end the siege so that we can stop the bloodshed," Haniyeh said.
But he added: "I am confident that we will reach the point we want, which is victory and the defeat of this aggression. So I want to salute our fighters in the field. We tell them: We kiss your heads and hands and the land underneath you; you are defending the dignity of our people and nation."
The Israeli onslaught has caused an increasing number of Hamas combatants to give up the fight and melt into the population, while others hole up in complexes of subterranean bunkers, according to Israeli security officials. Top Hamas figures are hiding in a bunker underneath a Gaza City hospital because they believe Israel will not bomb the medical facility, the officials said.
Meanwhile, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair arrived in Cairo, Egypt, for talks with President Hosni Mubarak, a key player in diplomatic efforts to reach a negotiated solution that would end the fighting in Gaza. Israel wants Egypt and the international community to shut down the smuggling tunnels along Gaza's southern border that provide Hamas with rockets used in years of aerial attacks on Israel.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni described the talks in Cairo yesterday as negotiations "against Hamas and not with it." Israeli leaders say they are determined to pursue the offensive until a security arrangement ensures an end to Hamas rocket attacks.
"I have no intention of negotiating with Hamas, and I don't need them to sign some paper, and what Hamas has to say is meaningless," Livni said in an interview with Army Radio. "This is called deterrence: They know that the next time they attack us they will be hurt."
In fighting yesterday, Israeli troops moved into the northern and southern outskirts of battered Gaza City, according to United Nations officials and witnesses. But the military refrained from driving into the center of the city, where close-quarters combat would further endanger civilians.
Aerial bombardment, artillery barrages and firing from naval vessels continued, targeting the Tuffah neighborhood in the north of Gaza, U.N. officials said. Israeli aircraft hit 25 targets, including eight squads of armed militants, two mortars and two vehicles driven by Hamas fighters, Israeli military officials said.
The Palestinian Ministry of Health reported yesterday that the death toll had risen from 884 to 910, according to an update from U.N. officials in Gaza. The dead include 292 children and 75 women, they said. The number of injured is 4,250, of whom 1,497 are children and 626 are women.
Israel has reported 13 dead, three of them civilians killed by Hamas rockets.