Israeli airstrikes on; kill over 280

Last Updated: Sunday, December 28, 2008 - 00:00

Gaza City, Dec 28: Israeli tanks massed at the Gaza border on Sunday as warplanes again pounded Hamas targets in the densely populated enclave where raids have killed more than 280 people in less than 48 hours.
Israel called up 6,500 reserve soldiers and moved infantry and armored units to the Gaza border for a possible ground invasion. Some 280 Palestinians died in the first 24 hours of the campaign against Gaza rocket squads.

Most of the dead were Hamas police, but the airstrikes also claimed the lives of civilians, including a 15-year-old boy killed inside a greenhouse.

Unbowed by 250 Israeli airstrikes, militants fired dozens of rockets and mortars at border communities Sunday. Two rockets struck close to the largest city in southern Israel, Ashdod, some 38 kilometers (23 miles) from Gaza, reaching deeper into Israel than ever before. The targeting of Ashdod confirmed Israel`s concern that militants are capable of putting major cities within rocket range. No serious injuries were reported in any of the attacks Sunday. One Israeli died in a rocket attack Saturday.

Despite the call for reserves, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said there were no plans to occupy Gaza. Speaking Sunday on "Meet the Press," Livni said the Israeli assault came because Gaza`s Hamas rulers were smuggling weapons and building up "a small army."

But, she said, "Our goal is not to reoccupy" the Gaza Strip, which Israel left in 2005 after a 38-year occupation.

The Palestinians` moderate President Mahmoud Abbas, a fierce rival of Hamas` who controls only the West Bank and has little influence in Gaza, urged the Islamic militant group to renew a truce with Israel that collapsed last week.

Thousands swept into the streets of cities around the Middle East to denounce Israel`s air assault. From Lebanon to Iran, Israel`s adversaries used the weekend assault to marshal crowds out onto the streets for noisy demonstrations.

Syria called off indirect peace talks while Turkey, an ally of Israel that was mediating the talks with Syria, denounced the air assault on Hamas targets as a "crime against humanity."

In New York, the UN Security Council urged Israel and the Palestinians to immediately halt all violence and military activities. The UN`s most powerful body called for a new cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, and for opening border crossings into Gaza to enable humanitarian supplies to reach the territory.

Israel allowed limited supplies of fuel and medicine into Gaza on Sunday, but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his Cabinet the operation in "is liable to last longer than we are able to foresee at this time."

Many of Israel`s Western allies urged restraint on both sides, though the US blamed Hamas for the fighting.

The offensive began eight days after a six-month truce between Israel and the militants expired. The Israeli army says Palestinian militants have fired more than 300 rockets and mortars at Israeli targets over the past week, and 10 times that number over the past year.

Streets were empty in Gaza City on Sunday as most residents stayed home, fearing more airstrikes. A few lined up to buy bread outside two bakeries. Schools were shut for a three-day mourning period the Gaza government declared Saturday for the campaign`s dead.

Hamas police kept a low profile, wearing jackets over their dark blue uniforms and walking close to walls, hoping to evade the detection by Israeli pilots.

Aircraft struck one of Hamas` main security compounds in Gaza City on Sunday — a major symbol of the group`s authority. Health officials said four people were killed and 25 wounded in the attack.

A column of black smoke towered from the building, and some inmates of the compound`s prison fled after the missiles struck. Hamas police nabbed some of them.

Minutes after the strike, Hamas police defiantly planted the movement`s green flag in the rubble.

"These strikes fuel our popular support, our military power and the firmness of our positions," said Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas legislator. "We will survive, we will move forward, we will not surrender, we will not be shaken."

Senior Hamas leaders went into hiding before the offensive began, shutting off their phones.

Hamas` Gaza prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, spoke on a televised address on Saturday evening, but it was not immediately clear where the address was taped.

Earlier, Palestinians said Israeli bombs destroyed a mosque outside Gaza`s main hospital in Gaza City; the military called it a "base for terrorist activities."

In southern Gaza, aircraft targeted a tanker truck, touching off a blaze that raged out of control and spread to about a dozen nearby houses. One of the main medicine warehouses supplying local pharmacies in southern Gaza was hit in another sortie.

Residents said the tanker and the warehouse contained supplies that had been smuggled in from Gaza through underground tunnels with Egypt, suggesting Israel was widening its offensive to go after businesses that are a source of income for Hamas or thought they may have contained weapons.

The tunnels — which have allowed the Hamas leadership to stave off complete economic collapse — came under attack themselves on Sunday, security officials and medics said, with witnesses reporting fires and explosions in the area.

Warplanes also attacked the Hamas television headquarters, but it continued to broadcast from a mobile unit.

The initial waves of attacks Saturday focused on key Hamas security installations and rocket-launching pads.

Gaza health official Dr. Moaiya Hassanain said at least 280 people were killed, including 183 members of Hamas` uniformed security forces. It was not clear how many of the others were gunmen or civilians.

The civilian casualties included a 15-year-old boy who died in southern Gaza on Sunday in an attack on a greenhouse near the border. At least 644 people were wounded, Hassanain said.

The Israeli Cabinet authorized the mobilization of 6,500 soldiers, a government official said. But the callup was not the kind of massive mobilization that was ordered in the summer of 2006 when Israel went to war against Lebanese guerrillas.

The rockets that struck close to Ashdod, extending the militants` reach closer to Israel`s heartland, landed some 23 miles (38 kilometers) from Gaza. Gaza`s Hamas rulers have been stockpiling weapons in recent months, including medium-range missiles. Until Sunday, the deepest targets inside Israel had been the city of Ashkelon and the town of Netivot, which are about 12 miles (20 kilometers) from Gaza.

Schools in Israeli communities in rocket range were told to remain closed beyond the Hanukkah holiday which ends Monday.

Israel`s military was on alert for possible disturbances in the West Bank.

Hundreds gathered in the West Bank town of Ramallah, seat of Abbas` government, where demonstrators were uncharacteristically allowed to march with Hamas` green flags. "With our blood and souls we defend you, Gaza," some of the protesters chanted.

Bureau Report



First Published: Sunday, December 28, 2008 - 00:00
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