Battles rage in Gaza as envoys appeal for truce
Israeli tanks, planes and ground forces pounded Gaza on Monday as the defence minister said the offensive against Hamas militants in the Palestinian enclave would go on until Israel was safe.
International efforts to secure a ceasefire moved ahead with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Middle East special envoy Tony Blair visiting the region, but they seemed able to offer little beyond words.
The death toll in besieged Gaza rose to at least 541 people over the 10-day offensive. Among Monday’s victims were 13 members of a Palestinian family in an Israeli strike on their home in a Gaza refugee camp, Palestinian medical officials said.
The Israeli army said “many dozens” of Hamas fighters had been killed since ground troops invaded on Saturday following a week-long air blitz to end rocket attacks by Hamas on southern Israel .
“Hamas has so far sustained a very heavy blow from us, but we have yet to achieve our objective and therefore the operation continues,” Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said.
The Jewish state launched the offensive after Hamas called off a six-month truce last month and stepped up attacks on the south, citing Israeli raids and a blockade of the enclave that Israel occupied from 1967 to 2005.
Hamas leaders rallied their combatants with defiant rhetoric on Monday as Israeli forces fought to secure positions in Gaza.
Thousands of fighters were waiting “in every street, every alley and at every house” to tackle them, Hamas military spokesperson Abu Ubaida said in a broadcast speech.
He taunted the Israelis by saying Hamas would capture more soldiers to join one who has been held for more than two years.
Hamas will also increase its rocket strikes on Israel if the Israeli attacks on Gaza kept on, Ubaida said.
A rocket hit the Israeli port city of Ashdod, damaging a building and wounding two people, police said.
Four Israelis have been killed by salvoes fired into Israel since the offensive began. An Israeli soldier was killed in fighting on Sunday and 48 have been wounded since the invasion.
Families seek refuge
Gun battles intensified in eastern Gaza City and in the north of the strip on Monday.
Militants fired mortars and grenades and detonated mines, and claimed to have hit a troop carrier.
They were also trying to lure Israeli soldiers into built-up areas, witnesses said.
An Israeli spokesperson said the air force bombed more than 30 targets, including homes of Hamas members used as weapons depots, tunnels and a suspected anti-aircraft rocket launcher.
Israel’s advances into Gaza have carved the 40km-long coastal territory, home to 1,5-million people, into two zones and forces have surrounded its largest urban area, Gaza City.
Bombs hit a hospital morgue where a family was mourning a paramedic killed in an air strike on Sunday. Three people were killed and 17 wounded, medical workers said.
“We were sitting in the mourning tent when suddenly they bombed us, we ran to rush the casualties to hospitals but they bombed again,” Abdel-Dayem told Reuters.
In all 29 Palestinian civilians were killed on Monday, medical officials said.
Gaza residents were in dire need of food, medical supplies and other aid but the hostilities were hampering relief efforts, aid agencies said.
At a house at the Beach refugee camp, Umm Ala Mrad sat on a mattress surrounded by her nine children. An Israeli warship intermittently fired shells, hitting buildings by the shore.
“Every time a shell is fired from the sea I rush to carry my children out of the house. But how and what should I do, who should I carry first and who should I leave for a next go?” she said.
Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, heading a European Union peace mission, could offer her little comfort. “We do not have a specific plan for a ceasefire because the ceasefire as such must be concluded by the involved parties,” he said in Jerusalem.
“We can mediate, we can assist a solution, but it’s not up to us to propose the conditions.”
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, envoy for the Quartet group of powers, said a ceasefire was a priority.
“We are doing everything we possibly can to bring about an end to a situation of immense suffering and deprivation,” he said after meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.
The Quartet wanted an immediate ceasefire respected by all sides and to get humanitarian aid flowing into Gaza, Blair said.
France’s Sarkozy condemned the offensive for harming chances for peace. He met Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and will later hold meetings in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
The United States, Israel’s closest ally, has looked all but sidelined by the pending transfer of its presidency. The Bush administration has supported Israel, saying Hamas must halt rocket fire at Israel for a truce to take shape.
As part of any halt to the fighting, which has led to protests across the world, Israel is seeking international help to bolster security along Gaza’s border with Egypt to prevent Hamas from rebuilding tunnels and rearming.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni rebuffed European proposals for international observers in the Gaza Strip after any ceasefire, pushing instead for teams that will help search out and seal off tunnels that could allow Hamas to rearm.
Global oil prices, meanwhile, jumped to a three-week high on Monday after an Iranian military commander called for an oil boycott over the Israeli offensive.—Reuters