Israel bombs tunnels as peace moves gather pace

Israeli warplanes bombed suspected arms-smuggling tunnels in southern Gaza early on Thursday, as diplomats worked to secure a ceasefire in an offensive that has killed about 700 Palestinians.

After a brief lull on Wednesday to allow Gaza’s beleaguered population to hunt for food and fuel, Defence Minister Ehud Barak was given by the security Cabinet the green light for a deeper offensive into Gaza as part of the campaign to halt Hamas rocket attacks.

But a senior Barak aide was due in Cairo on Thursday to get details on an Egyptian ceasefire plan, which secured widespread international backing amid mounting concern about the scale of the civilian casualties.

Warplanes hit a house and a suspected tunnel in an open area of Rafah near the Egyptian border early on Thursday, witnesses said.

The army confirmed that strikes were taking place in Rafah, which has already been targeted repeatedly since an Israeli air offensive began on December 27 and was followed up by a ground operation on Saturday.

There were no immediate reports of casualties.

On Wednesday, Israeli planes had dropped thousands of leaflets on the Rafah area, warning residents to leave their houses or face air strikes.

People were told they could return to their homes at 8am local time on Thursday.

The Rafah area is criss-crossed by what the Israeli army estimates to be about 300 tunnels and what local residents have told Agence France-Presse are 500 subterranean passages from Gaza into Egypt.

They are used to smuggle supplies and arms into Gaza, an impoverished enclave that Israel has virtually locked down since Hamas seized power in June 2007.

Ending the smuggling is a key element of a ceasefire plan proposed by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

It calls for an “immediate ceasefire”, Israeli-Palestinian talks on securing Gaza’s borders, reopening border crossings and possible Egyptian-mediated Palestinian reconciliation talks.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he hoped the talks would “lead to conditions which will allow” the end of the Israeli offensive, which has so far killed 702 Palestinians and wounded 3 100, according to Gaza medics.

Hundreds of Hamas rockets fired into Israel over the past 12 days have killed four people, including an Israeli soldier, and wounded dozens. Six Israeli soldiers have also died in combat.

The Hamas leadership announced it was studying the plan and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas was set to go to Cairo for talks.

The United States signalled it was open to the idea of a ceasefire but the White House said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was clarifying details of the Egyptian plan.

Russia’s top Middle East envoy met exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Damascus on Wednesday. The Russian Foreign Ministry said Meshaal declared himself ready to take part in a “political-diplomatic solution” but that “the imposition of capitulatory conditions by Israel was unacceptable”.

In New York, the United Nations Security Council was divided over competing proposals for a ceasefire.

Libya has submitted a draft resolution calling for “an immediate end” to the Israel offensive, while a rival non-binding statement circulated by France would merely stress “the urgent need for an immediate and durable ceasefire” and welcome the Egyptian initiative.

Olmert chaired the security Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem that “approved continuing the ground offensive, including a third stage that would broaden it by pushing deeper into populated areas”, a senior defence official said.

The final decision will be left with Barak, the official added.

Long queues

On Wednesday, Israeli shelling and air attacks around Gaza City were halted for three hours as a humanitarian gesture. Hamas also halted rocket attacks.

People and cars quickly filled the streets of Gaza City and long queues formed outside bakeries that soon ran out of bread. Aid groups sent dozens of truckloads of food and fuel across the border during the truce.

But the fighting quickly resumed after the brief lull, inflicting new deaths.

A man, his three sons and a nephew were killed in one attack at the Jabaliya refugee camp and an air strike killed two men in Khan Yunis on Wednesday night, medics said. Witnesses said the pair belonged to Hamas.

There was also an air strike on a mosque in northern Gaza City, but no casualties were reported.

Islamic Jihad said warplanes destroyed the homes of three of its military commanders, without causing casualties.

And witnesses reported that Israeli tanks had entered southern Gaza, but the army would neither confirm nor deny the claims.

Meanwhile, Israel was also slammed by the United Nations, which expressed outrage and demanded an independent investigation after military strikes on three UN-run schools in Gaza on Tuesday killed more than 40 people.

Forty-three people were killed in the deadliest strike, at Jabaliya. The army said its investigation found militants had fired at Israeli forces from inside the school and Hamas militants were among those killed.

The United Nations denied this.

“Following an initial investigation, we are 99,9% sure that there were no militants or militant activities in the school and the school compound,” Christopher Gunness, spokesperson for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, told said. – AFP

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