Israel kills 52 in Gaza, two soldiers killed

Israel killed 52 Palestinians on Saturday in its deadliest and deepest incursion into the Gaza Strip since pulling out in 2005, stoking fears of a broader conflict that could derail renewed United States-backed peace talks.

At least 29 of the dead were civilians, among them women and children, said Palestinian doctors who were working round the clock. In all, 87 Palestinians have been killed in four days of air strikes and, now, heavy fighting on the ground in the north.

Two Israeli soldiers were also killed and seven wounded, the army said — its first deaths in Gaza since October. Dozens of Hamas rockets hit Israeli border areas, wounding several people.

As Israeli leaders warned they could step up the assault, a top United Nations official in Gaza appealed for international action to end the ”inhuman suffering” of the people of the enclave.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a sworn enemy of Gaza’s Islamist rulers, called United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and asked for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council to help end the ”massacres” in Gaza, an Abbas aide said.

Employing a striking phrase used on Friday by a top Israeli official, Abbas said Gazans faced ”more than a holocaust”.

Israel’s Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai, who warned on Friday that Gaza faced a ”shoah”, said: ”As long as events escalate, the chances we will use greater force increases.”

With United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice due to visit next week to promote stuttering peace negotiations between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat warned: ”If the Israeli escalation and aggression continue, it will bury the peace process in the rubble.”

A spokesperson for Israel’s chief negotiator said: ”What Israel is doing in Gaza is fighting terror and it will be continued.”

Israel said it was responding to cross-border rockets, which killed an Israeli man in the border town of Sderot on Wednesday and have wounded others in the major southern city of Ashkelon.

More than 48 rockets and mortars landed on Saturday.

‘I don’t want to die’

Palestinian officials said their one-day death toll in Gaza on Saturday was the highest since 2002. Of the 52 killed, 23 were fighters, according to hospital staff and Hamas, which seized Gaza in June after routing Abbas’s Western-backed forces.

”Uncle, I don’t want to die. I want my dad,” a toddler screamed as doctors tried to treat burn wounds across her body in Gaza’s main Shifa hospital. The girl was injured in a house which the Israeli army said was used to store and make weapons.

One of the dead civilians was a mother who was preparing breakfast for her children when she was hit by gunfire, relatives and medical workers said. One missile slammed into a crowd of Palestinians, killing four civilians, medics said.

In Damascus, exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said: ”I say to the Zionist leaders, if they decided to raid Gaza, they will be fought not by dozens … but … by 1,5-million people.”

A senior UN official in Gaza, John Ging, appealed to world leaders to interrupt their weekend to stop the fighting:

”Killing Palestinian women and children will not bring security to the people of Israel,” he said, cautioning Israeli commanders about the risk of committing war crimes. He also said Hamas’s rocket fire would not achieve Palestinians’ goals.

Palestinian officials said Israeli forces advanced towards the towns of Beit Hanoun and Jabalya, the largest and furthest incursion into Gaza since 2005, when Israel pulled out its settlers and troops from the territory after 38 years.

Daily rocket fire for months has put Olmert under pressure from voters to act. But the government, chastened by a costly war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon in 2006, is wary of an outright invasion of the densely populated coastal region.

Olmert’s deputy, Vice-Premier Haim Ramon, said: ”We need to act with all our might, but without taking steps that will hurt us more than help us — by which I mean reoccupying Gaza.”

He said the main targets would be those directly involved in firing rockets and the broader Islamist leadership in Gaza.

Washington has urged Israel to ”consider the consequences”. Bloodshed could derail US hopes of a deal on a Palestinian state this year before President George Bush steps down.

Abbas’s power is now restricted to the Israeli-occupied West Bank. While he would shed few tears if Israel destroyed Hamas, he risks losing already patchy support in the West Bank if he is not seen to be speaking out against the Israeli military action.

Reflecting the depth of factional rifts among Palestinians, Abbas rejected a charge by Meshaal that he was giving cover to Israel. And he declared Sunday a day of national mourning. – Reuters

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