Israeli troops battle Hamas in Gaza cities

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Israeli troops battled Hamas fighters in major cities of overcrowded Gaza on Tuesday as Israel spurned appeals to halt a war on the Islamists that has killed at least 580 Palestinians.

Israeli tanks firing cannons and backed by helicopter gunships rolled into the southern city of Khan Yunis in the pre-dawn hours, to be met by return fire from Hamas and other militant groups, witnesses said.

The incursion came as Israeli infantry and Hamas gunmen exchanged fire inside Gaza City and at the edges of Deir al-Balah and al-Bureij in the centre of the territory, witnesses and medics said.

Israeli strikes hit two separate schools run by the United Nations in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday morning, killing at least five Palestinians, medics and UN officials said.

Despite the relentless air, ground and naval assault on their stronghold launched to stop rockets, defiant Hamas continued to fire into Israel.

One projectile slammed 45km inside the Jewish state, the deepest yet, lightly wounding a baby, the army said. Three others landed elsewhere without causing injuries.

Protests against one of Israel’s deadliest ever offensives on Gaza spiralled around the globe and French President Nicolas Sarkozy led new calls for a truce as he held talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

“We, Europe, want a ceasefire as soon as possible,” Sarkozy said on Monday. “Time is working against peace. The weapons must be silenced and there must be a temporary humanitarian truce.”

But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed that the campaign would continue until Israel completely wiped out Hamas’s ability to fire rockets into Israel.

“The results of the operation must be … that Hamas must not only stop firing but must no longer be able to fire,” he was quoted as saying.

“We cannot accept a compromise that will allow Hamas to fire in two months against Israeli towns.”

Israel unleashed its “Operation Cast Lead” on Hamas on December 27 with a massive air bombardment of Gaza, and poured in thousands of ground troops a week later.

Since then, at least 580 Palestinians have been killed, nearly 100 of them children, and more than 2 700 wounded, according to Gaza medics.

The army said on Tuesday an Israeli paratroop officer was killed overnight in northern Gaza, indicating he may have been killed by friendly fire.

“The details of the event are still being investigated; however it is suspected that a tank shell was mistakenly fired at the force,” the army said in a statement.

The death brings to five the number of Israeli soldiers killed since the army poured ground troops into the Hamas stronghold on Saturday. Three of the soldiers died as a result of “friendly fire” in clashes in Gaza.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said people were dying because ambulances could not reach them amid the fighting.

Sarkozy, in Jerusalem after meeting Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, called the Hamas rocket attacks “irresponsible and unforgivable”, sparking the Islamists’ retort that he was “totally biased” towards Israel.

Olmert and Sarkozy agreed the latter would continue to push for a deal involving Egypt.

Cairo brokered a six-month truce that ended on December 19, which Hamas refused to renew. Sarkozy spoke after meeting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and as a senior Hamas delegation was due to arrive in Egypt for talks on ending the violence.

Strong support
Israel’s main ally, the United States, continued to lend strong support to the operation, with US President George Bush saying any truce must ensure an end to rocket fire.

“I understand Israel’s desire to protect itself and that the situation now taking place in Gaza was caused by Hamas,” he said.

The fighting in one of the world’s most densely populated places where minors make up a large chunk of the 1,5-million population has claimed dozens of civilian lives.

In the latest such incident, medics said a couple and their five children were killed by a navy shell, while three children were killed by a shell in the Gaza City suburbs and two were killed in Shati.

Israeli officials have insisted they are doing all they can to prevent civilian casualties and have blamed Hamas for operating from civilian centres.

Gaza militants have continued to fire rockets into Israel despite the massive offensive, with three civilians and one soldier killed by the projectiles since December 27.

Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since seizing the densely populated coastal enclave in June 2007 from forces loyal to Abbas, has remained defiant.

“Victory is coming,” its senior leader in Gaza, Mahmud Zahar, said in a television broadcast.

Israel faces intense international pressure to ease the suffering of the aid-dependent Gaza population, which has no power or water supplies and finding food is a daily struggle.

The UN Security Council was to meet again on Tuesday to weigh an Arab call for an immediate ceasefire and for protection of Palestinian civilians, diplomats said. — AFP

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