Israel Prepares for Ground War

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) - Israel sent more troops to the Gaza
border Wednesday, rapidly moving forward with preparations for a
possible ground offensive as the next stage of its military assault
on the coastal territory's Hamas rulers.
Israel rebuffed calls by world leaders for a truce, and Hamas
also was cold to a cease-fire.
Instead, both intensified their fire. Israel bombed a mosque
that it said was used to store rockets as well as vital smuggling
tunnels along the Egyptian border, and the Islamic militants
hammered southern Israeli cities with about 60 rockets.
Israeli troops trudged between dozens of tanks in muddy,
rain-sodden fields outside Gaza, assembling equipment, cleaning
weapons and scrubbing out tank barrels. Their commanders moved
forward with preparations for a ground operation, said an Israeli
defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the
sensitive nature of the information.
The U.N. Security Council met Wednesday night to consider an
Arab request for a legally binding resolution that would condemn
Israel and halt the attacks. But the United States called a draft
resolution "unacceptable" because it made no mention of halting
the Hamas rockets. A vote on a resolution was not expected before
Monday, Sudan's U.N. ambassador said.
Diplomatic efforts by U.S., European and Middle Eastern leaders
appeared to be having little effect. A French proposal for a
48-hour cease-fire to allow humanitarian supplies into Gaza failed
to gain traction. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the time
was not ripe to consider it.
A separate proposal by Turkey and Egypt, two of Israel's few
allies in the Muslim world, also seemed to be attracting little
serious study in Israel or Gaza, where Hamas leaders dismissed talk
of a truce.
With a shrinking number of targets to hit from the air and top
Hamas leaders deep in hiding, a ground operation seemed all the
more likely. In five days of raids, Israeli warplanes carried out
about 500 sorties against Hamas targets and helicopters flew
hundreds more combat missions, a senior Israeli military officer
said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with military
The government has approved the call-up of more than 9,000
reserve soldiers. Heavy rain clouds cover that could hinder ground
forces were expected to lift Thursday.
U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said the death toll was
estimated at 320-390 and the number of injured at 1,500-1,900.
Between 20 percent and 25 percent of the dead are either women or
children, said Karen Abu Zayd, U.N. Relief and Works Agency
Hamas says some 200 uniformed members of its security forces
have been killed, and the U.N. says at least 60 Palestinian
civilians have died.
In Israel, three civilians and a soldier have been killed by
rocket fire, which has reached deeper into Israel than ever. The
sites of the missile hits have drawn curious crowds.
In the Negev desert city of Beersheba, people visited a school
where a rocket made a direct hit Tuesday evening, slamming through
the ceiling and showering debris on students' desks. A visitor
illuminated by a shaft of light through the hole in the roof said
with some astonishment, "This is my daughter's seat."
In Gaza, the sites of airstrikes have also attracted the curious
and the defiant, including a Palestinian man who planted a green
Hamas flag atop a mound of debris at a flattened mosque, its
minaret still thrusting toward a stormy sky.
The Israeli military, which leveled the mosque Wednesday, said
that it was being used as a missile storage site and that the bombs
dropped on it set off secondary explosions. It was the fifth mosque
hit in the campaign.
The chief of Israel's internal security services, Yuval Diskin,
told a government meeting that Hamas members had hidden inside
mosques, believing they would be safe from airstrikes and using
them as command centers, according to an Israeli security official
who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to
share the information.
Other militants were hiding in hospitals, some disguised as
doctors and nurses, Diskin said, according to the official.
Early Thursday, huge explosions shook Gaza City as Israeli
planes bombed three government buildings and the parliament.
Hospital officials said 25 wounded were evacuated from nearby
Echoing Israel's cool response to truce proposals, a senior
Hamas leader with ties to its military wing said that now was not
the right time to call off the fight. Hamas was unhappy with the
six-month truce that ended just before the fighting began because
it didn't result in an easing of Israel's crippling economic
blockade of Gaza.
Hamas spokesman Taher Nunu said that although Hamas leaders had
been driven underground, the Gaza government was functioning and
had met in the past few days.
"What our people want is clear: an immediate stop to all kinds
of aggression, the end of the siege by all means, the opening of
all border crossings, and international guarantees that the
occupation will not renew this terrorist war again," Nunu said.
Israel's latest airstrikes concentrated on crushing the many
smuggling tunnels under Gaza's southern border with Egypt. They
provide a crucial lifeline, not just for Hamas rulers, but also for
bringing in food and fuel for Gaza's people.
Holmes, the U.N. humanitarian chief, expressed concern about the
fighting's impact on civilians. He said hospitals were struggling
to cope with casualties and the lack of fuel deliveries had forced
Gaza's power plant to shut down Tuesday.
But U.N. officials said the major need was grain and other food.
Holmes said the Kerem Shalom crossing remained open and 55 trucks
got through Tuesday and about 60 on Wednesday, mainly carrying
food. He said Israel had been "cooperative in principle about
these supplies, but we need to see more results."
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said U.S. officials were
seeing "a good flow" of medical and food supplies into Gaza.
Israel and Egypt blockaded Gaza after Hamas fighters violently
seized control of the territory in 2007 and the two nations have
opened their borders only to let in limited humanitarian aid.
On Wednesday, several wounded Palestinians were taken across the
Israeli and Egyptian borders for treatment, including a child
bundled in blankets.
Gaza's southern smuggling zone was hit again Wednesday morning
and evening in airstrikes that left vast craters over the collapsed
underground passages. Hospital officials said two people were
killed and 42 wounded in the bombing.

Diskin, the Israeli security chief, told a Cabinet meeting that
the tunnel network had been badly damaged. Israel said more than 80
tunnels were destroyed. Several hundred tunnels ran under the
border before Israeli warplanes began striking.
Hamas was trying to smuggle some of its activists to Egypt
through still-passable tunnels, Diskin said.
Israel fears that opening border crossings would allow Hamas -
which remains officially committed to Israel's destruction - to
further strengthen its hold on the territory.
Moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a Hamas rival who
controls only the West Bank, suggested he would not continue peace
talks with Israel at any price. He said on Palestinian TV that the
stalled talks had become useless and were not reaching any of the
goals - namely the creation of a Palestinian state.
"Negotiation is not a goal by itself; it's a tool," Abbas
said. "Unless it is a tool to achieve peace ... there is no need
for it to continue."
Gaza's militants fired dozens of rockets into Israel on
Wednesday evening, including one in the city of Ashkelon that was
caught on video. It showed a man on a sidewalk ducking for cover
along a wall as the missile exploded in a cloud of smoke a few
steps behind him.
The city of 120,000 people 11 miles north of Gaza has been a
frequent target.
Israel's rescue service said it had responded to 250 rocket
attack scenes since Saturday and treated 48 wounded, most of whom
had light injuries.
School was canceled in much of Israel's south because of the
rocket threat. The 18,000 students at Ben-Gurion University in
Beersheba, southern Israel's only university, were also told to
stay home.
Beersheba, 19 miles from Gaza, had never before been within
range of Gaza rockets, reflecting the increasing sophistication of
what started out as homemade weaponry.
Now militants are firing weapons made in China and Iran that
have dramatically expanded their range and put more than one-tenth
of Israel's population in their sights, defense officials said.
In Gaza, two Palestinian medics were killed and two others were
wounded when an Israeli missile hit next to their ambulance east of
Gaza City, Palestinians said. The Israeli military said it did not
know of the incident.

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