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Israel pounds Gaza, vows to continue campaign

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[January 05, 2009]  GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -- Israeli forces consolidated their hold on parts of the Gaza Strip on Monday, seizing three high-rise buildings on the outskirts of the territory's biggest city and killing seven children as militants fired more rockets into southern Israel.

At least six other civilians were killed as the bruising campaign against Hamas militants entered its 10th day.

CivicIsraeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the offensive would continue until Israel achieved "peace and tranquility" for residents of southern Israel who continued to be bombarded by Palestinian rocket and mortar fire.

Militants, defying the attacks, fired two dozen rockets at Israel by midday and Gaza's Hamas strongman urged Palestinians to "crush" the invading Israeli forces and target Israeli civilians.

A stream of diplomats and world leaders hoping to end the violence headed for the region to meet with Israeli leaders as world outrage over ballooning Palestinian casualties mounted. Gaza health officials reported 537 dead and nearly 2,000 wounded since Israel embarked upon its military campaign against Gaza's Islamic Hamas rulers on Dec. 27. At least 200 civilians were among the dead.

Israeli forces seized sparsely populated areas in northern Gaza and by Monday morning were dug in on the edges of Gaza City. Further movement into the heart of the built-up areas would mean deadly urban warfare, with house-to-house fighting, sniper fire and booby traps in crowded streets and alleyways familiar to Hamas' 20,000 fighters.


Thirteen civilians died in the various attacks across Gaza on Monday morning, said Gaza health official Dr. Moaiya Hassanain.

Four young siblings were killed in a missile strike on a house east of Gaza City. Three other children died in a naval shelling of a Gaza City beach camp and three adult civilians died when a missile struck near a house of mourning in the northern town of Beit Lahiya, he said. Three other adult civilians died in attacks elsewhere.

Israeli troops took over three six-floor buildings on the outskirts of Gaza City, taking up rooftop positions after locking residents in rooms and taking away their cell phones, a neighbor said, quoting a relative in one of the buildings before his phone was taken away.

"The army is there, firing in all directions," said Mohammed Salmai, a 29-year-old truck driver. "All we can do is take clothes to each other to keep ourselves warm and pray to God that if we die, someone will find our bodies under the rubble."

Civilian casualties have spiked since Israel launched a ground offensive Saturday, following a week of punishing air strikes. Of about 80 Palestinians killed during the ground operation, at least 70 were civilians, Hassanain said.

If civilians are killed, then Hamas is to blame because it operates within civilian areas, Leibovich said.

"If Hamas chose cynically to use those civilians as human shields, then Hamas should be accountable," she said. "Civilians will probably continue to get killed, unfortunately, because Hamas put them in the first lines of fire."

Black smoke from tank shells and windswept dust billowed in the air over Gaza City, while white smoke from mortar shells rose in plumes above a main road leading to northern Gaza that the Israeli military seized on Sunday, cutting off Gaza's north from its south. Explosions could be heard in Gaza City as aircraft attacked buildings.

The streets of Gaza City, home to 400,000 people, were almost empty. Two children crossing a street near a Hamas security compound didn't look right and left for cars but gazed up at the sky, apparently looking for attack aircraft. The only vehicles on the road were fire engines, ambulances and press cars.

Unmanned Israeli planes and Apache helicopters circled overhead.

"Hamas has sustained a very harsh blow," Barak told parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee. "But we still haven't reached our objectives, so the offensive continues."

Israel has three main demands: an end to Palestinian attacks, international supervision of any truce and a halt to Hamas rearming.

"If we withdraw today, without reaching some kind of comprehensive agreement, we haven't done anything," Israeli Cabinet Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told Army Radio. "The military has to carry on with its work."

Hamas demands a cessation of Israeli attacks and the opening of vital Gaza-Israel cargo crossings, Gaza's main lifeline.

Hamas leaders went into hiding before the Israeli military strike began and only on rare occasions have addressed the Gaza residents in broadcasts from their hideouts. On Monday, the mastermind of Hamas' takeover of Gaza, Mahmoud Zahar, exhorted Palestinians to "crush" Israeli forces and to target Israeli civilians.

"The Zionists have legitimized the killing of their children by killing our children. They have legitimized the killing of their people all over the world by killing our people," Zahar said in a grainy video broadcast on Hamas TV.

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"Crush your enemy," he urged.

Hamas security said Israeli aircraft struck two mosques in central and northern Gaza, while ground troops battled with militants armed with mortar shells, grenades and antitank missiles in the area between Gaza City, Gaza's largest urban area, and Jebaliya to the north.

The ground clashes took place in open areas militants use to launch rockets and mortars at nearby Israeli communities, but did not advance into urban areas where casualties are liable to swell.

The Israeli military said aircraft carried out 30 sorties overnight, striking a mosque in Jebaliya that contained a large store of weapons, and an underground arms bunker in the Gaza City area that touched off secondary explosions and collapsed underground smuggling tunnels.

Aircraft also hit weapons smugging tunnels in southern Gaza near the Egyptian border and went after the houses of Hamas members where weapons were stored, the military said. A rocket launcher and suspected anti-aircraft missile launcher were also targeted, it said.

The violence has deepened the suffering in impoverished Gaza, home to 1.4 million people. The military said Monday that 80 truckloads of humanitarian aid and critical fuel supplies would be let in.

Militants, defying the attacks, fired more than two dozen rockets at Israel by midday Monday, striking two house, police said. No injuries were reported, but the rockets continued to fire deep inside Israel, some 20 miles from the Gaza border. One reason Israel launched the Gaza campaign was because militants have acquired weapons able to reach closer to Israel's Tel Aviv heartland.

Israel's ground operation is the second phase in an offensive that began as a weeklong aerial onslaught aimed at halting Hamas rocket fire that now threatens major cities and one-eighth of Israel's population of 7 million people.

The spiraling civilian casualties have fueled an intensifying international outcry.

Five Israelis have been killed since the offensive began. One soldier has been killed in the ground operation and about 40 were wounded, some of them in heavy exchanges of fire near the militant stronghold of Jebaliya, a town on Gaza City's northern outskirts. Heavy Israeli casualties could undermine what has so far been overwhelming public support for the operation.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who unsuccessfully proposed a two-day truce before the land invasion began, was due to meet with Israei Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Paelstinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who lost control of Gaza to Hamas in June 2007.

While blaming Hamas for causing Palestinian suffering with rocket fire that led to the Israeli offensive, Sarkozy has condemned Israel's use of ground troops, reflecting general world opinion. Sarkozy and other diplomats making their way to the region are expected to press hard for a cease-fire.

A European Union delegation including foreign policy chief Javier Solana was due to meet with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

The Czech Republic, which took over the 27-nation EU's presidency on Thursday, urged Israel to allow humanitarian relief aid into Gaza. German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke on the phone Sunday with Olmert and advocated a quick cease-fire in Gaza, her government said in a statement. Merkel also called for an end to the smuggling of weapons into the Gaza Strip.


Turkey and Egypt, which have both been involved intimately in Mideast peacemaking, have denounced the ground offensive.

[Associated Press; By IBRAHIM BARZAK and AMY TEIBEL]

Teibel reported from Jerusalem.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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