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Israel presses Gaza offensive, Ban calls for truce

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International efforts to stop the Gaza war intensified on Wednesday and Israel pressed its demand that Hamas not be allowed to rearm under a ceasefire, sending warplanes to drop bunker-busting bombs on smuggling tunnels.

”They used bombs that went deep into the tunnels and shook the whole Rafah refugee camp. The land trembled beneath our feet,” said Bassam Abdallah, a local Palestinian cameraman. ”We used to be afraid — but now we’re getting used to it.”

While Israel’s Gaza campaign entered its 19th day and the Palestinian death toll crept past 1 000, militants in Lebanon carried out a second rocket attack on northern Israel in less than a week, but no one was hurt, police said.

Israel responded with artillery shelling. There were no reports of casualties on either side of the tense frontier nor any immediate claim of responsibility for the rocket salvo.

In Cairo, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon renewed his call for ”an immediate and durable ceasefire” between Israel and Hamas, which on Wednesday fired more rockets into southern Israeli cities, causing no casualties.

But in a nod to Egypt’s truce talks with the Islamist group, Ban, who planned to visit Israel, Jordan and Syria but not the Gaza Strip during his mission, asked that any party with influence help end the bloodshed.

A Hamas delegation in Cairo wrapped up another session of discussions with Egyptian mediators.

”The talks did not finish completely. We have presented our vision for a solution and we are awaiting the response,” Hamas official Ayman Taha told Reuters by telephone from the Egyptian capital. He gave no details of Hamas’s ceasefire terms.

An Egyptian proposal calls for a temporary ceasefire, followed by a long-term truce and the opening of Gaza’s border crossings with the presence of officials from the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas, whose forces Hamas drove out of Gaza in 2007.

The third phase of the initiative deals with efforts to reconcile Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah group.

Hamas arsenal
Hamas sources, speaking before the latest negotiating session, said the group was demanding a 6- to 12-month-long renewable truce coupled with an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the opening of crossing points.

Israel has said a ceasefire deal must ensure that Hamas cannot not replenish a military arsenal hit by Israeli attacks since December 27.

The Israeli military said its aircraft bombed about 35 tunnels under the Gaza Strip’s border with Egypt and also struck Hamas police headquarters in the Israeli-encircled city of Gaza, eight squads of gunmen and weapons storage facilities.

The tunnels have also provided an economic lifeline for Palestinians in the blockaded Gaza Strip.

The Palestinian death toll rose past 1 000, Gaza’s Health Ministry said, counting about 400 women and children among those killed. Israel says 10 Israeli soldiers and three civilians hit by Hamas rockets fired across the border have been killed.

Israeli forces killed seven militants and two civilians in the latest fighting, Gaza medical workers said. About six rockets fired from the Gaza Strip hit southern Israel, causing no casualties, police said.

In an audio tape on Islamist websites, al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden called for jihad [holy struggle] over an Israeli offensive that has caused widespread anger in the Arab and Muslim world.

Addressing ”our brothers in Palestine”, he said: ”We are with you and we will not let you down. Our fate is tied to yours in fighting the Crusader-Zionist coalition, in fighting until victory or martyrdom.”

With Israeli troops edging closer to the heart of the city of Gaza, international organisations have expressed growing concern about the plight of children trapped there.

Human rights groups have reported shortages of vital supplies, including water, in the Hamas-ruled territory. A fuel shortage has brought frequent power blackouts.

Israel has permitted almost daily truck shipments of food and medicine. But Human Rights Watch said Israel’s daily three-hour break in attacks to facilitate the supply of humanitarian aid to Gazans was ”woefully insufficient”.

In northern Israel, three rockets from Lebanon struck open fields outside the city of Kiryat Shmona, police said.

”As things stand now, we have no intention of opening a second front. We hope this was an isolated incident,” Israeli Cabinet Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told Israel Radio.

Last Thursday, a similar salvo hit northern Israel but Lebanese and Israeli officials were quick to play down that incident, blaming not the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement, an ally of Gaza’s Hamas, but smaller Palestinian groups in Lebanon. Israel and Hezbollah fought a month-long war in 2006. — Reuters

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