Israel presses on with Gaza strikes

A defiant Israel pounded Gaza with bombs and shells on Friday, vowing to pursue its war on Hamas despite a truce order from the UN Security Council, amid warnings the territory was running out of food.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel would not bow to “outside influence” as its aircraft carried out more bombing and the army’s tanks shelled several locations despite an announced three-hour “humanitarian” lull.

Hamas, meanwhile, also rejected the United Nations resolution, which called for an “immediate, durable” ceasefire on the grounds that it only served Israel’s interests.

Two weeks on from the start of Operation Cast Lead, more than 780 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces, according to medics in Gaza.

Pressure on the two sides increased with a late-night UN Security Council resolution that demanded an “immediate, durable” ceasefire leading to the “full withdrawal” of Israeli forces from Gaza.

Fourteen of the 15 council members voted in favour. The United States, Israel’s main ally, abstained but refrained from vetoing the resolution agreed after lengthy negotiations between Arab and Western foreign ministers.

The moderate Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, whose power is limited to the West Bank, called the UN move an “important step,” but stressed that applying it was key.

The response from Olmert, however, was dismissive, calling it “impractical” in the face of continued rocket attacks by Hamas.

Israel launched its war against the Islamists on December 27 aiming to end rocket attacks in southern Israel and the smuggling of weapons into Gaza from Egypt.

“Israel has never agreed for any outside influence to decide on its right to defend its citizens,” Olmert said in a statement.

“The IDF [Israel Defence Forces] will continue to operate in order to defend the citizens of Israel and will carry out the task it was given for the operation,” said the statement, which was released as his security Cabinet met.

A senior official later confirmed the security Cabinet had decided to continue the offensive in Gaza despite the Security Council resolution.

“The ministers reiterated Israel’s full right to defend its citizens to which end the IDF will continue its operations,” the official told Agence France-Presse on condition of anonymity.

A Hamas official in Beirut, Raafat Morra, said his group was also rejecting the UN resolution, as “it is not in the best interest of the Palestinian people”.

Israel staged more than 50 air strikes in Gaza, which Palestinian emergency services said killed 12 civilians, taking the death toll since the campaign began to almost 800.

Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians have been killed in combat or rocket attacks into Israel over the same period.

Hamas and its allies fired more than 15 rockets into southern Israel, injuring one person, the military said. At least four Grad rockets hit Beersheva, about 40km from Gaza.

The violence on the ground has prompted the UN’s main aid agency in Gaza, UNRWA, to halt to all its operations, raising fears that the territory’s beleaguered 1,5-million population will soon go hungry.

“The need on the ground is dire,” a spokesperson for the UN’s World Food Programme said from Egypt’s Rafah border crossing with Gaza, through which aid has passed since the conflict began.

“Eighty percent of the population is in need right now, maybe even beyond that,” said Nancy Ronan.
“We got food into Gaza, but we now have a problem distributing it because of the security situation.”

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been leading mediation efforts and was due to hold talks with Abbas on Saturday.

But Arab anger at the conflict is mounting with more than 50 000 Egyptians rallying after prayers in the city of Alexandria to condemn Israel’s onslaught.

Legislators affiliated with the opposition Muslim Brotherhood led the protest in the ancient Mediterranean port city that echoed to such slogans as “Down with Israel and with every collaborator.”—AFP

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