Israel rejected a United Nations resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza on Friday and, as jets and tanks again pounded the Palestinian enclave, ministers debated whether to step up their two-week-old campaign against Hamas guerrillas.
With the civilian death toll in the hundreds and rising amid outraged denunciations of Israel from the Red Cross, United Nations agencies and Arab and European governments, diplomats also sounded an alarm that Egyptian-brokered truce talks launched this week might also be foundering.
Israel’s air force said it hit more than 50 targets. Palestinian medics counted at least 18 dead, including civilians.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rejected the Security Council resolution calling for an ”immediate and durable” ceasefire as ”unworkable”. He issued his statement while a meeting with his security Cabinet continued, looking at whether to send in reservists for a push into the main urban centres.
Israeli warplanes dropped bombs on the outskirts of the city of Gaza, residents said. Elsewhere, Palestinian medics said tanks shelled a house in Beit Lahiya in the north of the Gaza Strip, killing six Palestinians from the same family.
A UN agency said in a report that 30 Palestinians were killed earlier this week when the Israeli army sheltered dozens of civilians in a house that was later hit by shells.
Noting Palestinians fired more rockets at Israel on Friday, Olmert said the army would go on with its mission.
”The firing of rockets this morning only goes to show that the UN decision is unworkable and will not be adhered to by the murderous Palestinian organisations,” he said.
”The IDF [Israeli army] will continue to act in order to protect the citizens of Israel and will achieve the goals that were set for the operation.”
Israel says it wants to stop rockets landing on its towns. At least 14 were fired on Friday, fewer than the dozens Hamas was able to launch in the early days of the war. Hamas officials said they were looking at the UN resolution.
Israel’s key ally, the United States, abstained in the UN vote, easing the pressure on the Jewish state, while noting talks on a truce were still under way under Egyptian mediation.
Talks in trouble
That Egyptian initiative, brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy earlier in the week, may be in trouble, however.
”The truce talks are going nowhere at the moment,” a senior European diplomat told Reuters.”There is a growing sense that the Egyptian-French plan is not going to work.”
European and Israeli diplomats told Reuters that Egypt was objecting to proposals that foreign troops and technicians be stationed on its 15kmborder with the Gaza Strip as part of a deal to meet Israeli demands that Hamas be denied the opportunity to rearm after a truce through smuggling tunnels.
Instead, diplomats said, Egypt was ready to accept technical assistance for its own forces on the border, which Israel argues have hitherto failed to prevent Hamas building up an arsenal of hundreds of smuggled, Soviet-designed Katyusha missiles as well as, possibly, sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.
Olmert’s security Cabinet on Wednesday put off a decision on whether to launch a massive escalation of the offensive on Hamas guerrillas by moving troops in a third phase deep into urban areas, a move that would mean calling in reservists. Officials said ministers were discussing the proposal again on Friday.
The onslaught in Gaza, where many civilians, including children, have been killed, has solid support among Israeli voters who go to the polls in a month. A poll on Friday showed more than 90% support among Israel’s Jewish majority.
A poll showed that Defence Minister Ehud Barak’s Labour party has held on to sharp gains it has made since war began, though it still trails Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s Kadima, which is running close behind the right-wing Likud opposition. Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud’s leader, has also thrown strong support behind the war.
Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, governed by Hamas’s rival Fatah movement under President Mahmoud Abbas, have been enraged by the Israeli offensive, and Israeli forces and Abbas’s police were on high alert on Friday, although there were only minor clashes around weekly prayers at mosques.
Several thousand people demonstrated and burned Israeli flags in Hebron, a Hamas stronghold in the West Bank.
The Israeli air force hit at least 50 targets across the enclave, including launching pads for rockets and facilities used to manufacture rockets, an army spokesperson said.
Israel’s military commanders appeared keen to pursue what was termed a third stage of the operation with additional ground troops being sent into the heart of Gaza’s built-up areas to flush out more gunmen and to try to secure more gains.
The Israeli army said it was, for the third day running, holding fire for three hours from 1pm local time to let people stock up on food and other supplies.
Meanwhile, Gaza’s Hamas rulers sent mixed signals about the resolution. Hamas spokesperson Ayman Taha said the group did not recognise the resolution as it had not been consulted. Another spokesperson said Hamas was ”studying” the resolution.
The resolution called for arrangements to prevent arms smuggling into Gaza and for its borders to be opened. It said there should be ”unimpeded provision” and distribution of aid to the territory, home to 1,5-million people.
The UN Relief and Works Agency, which distributes much of the aid in Gaza, kept its operations suspended on Friday after the death of one of its drivers in Israel’s offensive.
Hamas officials said the Palestinian death toll had risen to 783. Ten soldiers have been killed in the campaign launched by Israel to crush Hamas forces and halt the firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel. Israel says it is doing what it can to avoid civilian casualties but accuses Hamas of deliberately placing its fighters close to homes and mosques.
Rockets have killed three Israeli civilians since the offensive began. Israel has said it accepts the ”principles” of the ceasefire proposal by Egypt and the European Union, and Washington has urged the Jewish state to study the details. — Reuters