Gaza Offensive Resumes

Israel resumed its Gaza offensive Wednesday, bombing heavily around suspected smuggling tunnels near the border with Egypt after a three-hour lull to allow in humanitarian aid.

A rocket fired by Palestinian militants at southern Israel leaves a thin trail of white smoke, as smoke caused by explosions from Israeli forces' operations rises from buildings on the outskirts of Gaza City, Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2009. Israeli forces edged closer to Gaza's major population centers on Tuesday and attacked new targets, including a U.N. school, taking more civilian lives after ignoring mounting international calls for an immediate cease-fire. A Palestinian rocket attack wounded an Israeli infant. (AP Photos/Hatem Moussa)

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) - Israel resumed its Gaza offensive
Wednesday, bombing heavily around suspected smuggling tunnels near
the border with Egypt after a three-hour lull to allow in
humanitarian aid. Hamas responded with a rocket barrage.
Despite the heavy fighting, strides were made on the diplomatic
front with the U.S. throwing its weight behind a deal being
brokered by France and Egypt.
While the Security Council failed to reach agreement on a
cease-fire resolution, Egyptian diplomats said Egypt will host
separate talks with Israel, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in
Cairo Thursday, but there would be no meeting between Israel and
Hamas.
Israeli airstrikes killed 29 Palestinians on Wednesday after
leaflets were dropped warning residents to leave the area "because
Hamas uses your houses to hide and smuggle military weapons."
The fighting continued into Thursday. Palestinians reported more
than 20 airstrikes around Gaza before dawn, killing one person and
wounding 10. There were also reports of clashes between Israeli
armored forces and Hamas militants in southern Gaza.
At least three rockets were fired from Lebanon Thursday into
Israel, lightly wounding at least one person, officials said.
Southern Lebanon was the scene of bitter fighting between Israel
and Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas two years ago in a conflict that
killed more than 1,000 in Lebanon and about 160 in Israel. Many had
feared that Hezbollah might come to the aid of Hamas by firing
rockets, but until now the border had been quiet.
Hezbollah is not the only player in southern Lebanon. Rockets
suspected to have been fired by small radical Palestinian groups or
Islamic militants with links to al-Qaida in the past have stoked
border tensions.
The casualties brought the total Palestinian death toll during
Israel's 12-day assault to 689 and drove home the complexities of
finding a diplomatic endgame for Israel's Gaza invasion. Ten
Israelis have been killed, including three civilians, since the
offensive began Dec. 27.
More than 5,000 people have fled the border area, seeking refuge
at two U.N. schools turned into temporary shelters.
The fury of the renewed fighting made it appear each side was
scrambling to get in as many hits as possible before a truce could
materialize.
"I feel like the ground is shaking when we hear the shelling.
People are terrified," said Fida Kishta, a resident of the
Gaza-Egypt border area where Israeli planes destroyed 16 empty
houses.
In Turkey, a Mideast diplomat who spoke on condition of
anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly said that
country would be asked to put together an international force that
could help keep the peace. And diplomats in New York worked on a
U.N. Security Council statement backing the cease-fire initiative
but failed to reach agreement on action to end the violence.
"We are very much applauding the efforts of a number of states,
particularly the effort that President (Hosni) Mubarak has
undertaken on behalf of Egypt," Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice said. "We're supporting that initiative."
The army, which has refused to allow journalists into Gaza,
permitted two TV teams to accompany soldiers on patrol for the
first time. The footage showed soldiers walking through a deserted
street in an unidentified location in Gaza.
The Israeli military correspondent who accompanied the soldiers
said they were concerned about Hamas booby-traps. He said they were
shooting through walls, throwing grenades around corners, going
from house to house looking for Hamas gunmen and using bomb sniffer
dogs. Buildings showed bullet and shrapnel marks. "We used a lot

of fire," said an officer in the group, Lt. Col. Ofer.
Hamas, meanwhile, fired rockets, though at a slower pace than
previous days, hitting the towns of Ashkelon and Beersheba with the
sort of longer range missiles never seen before this war. Rockets
were still hitting the cities after midnight, but there were no
immediate reports of injury.
Despite the violence, a surprise announcement in Paris on
Wednesday put a spotlight on diplomacy.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that both Israel and the
Palestinian Authority had accepted the cease-fire deal, but he made
no mention of Hamas, without whom no truce could work. The
Palestinian Authority controls only the West Bank while Hamas rules
Gaza - two territories on opposite sides of Israel that are
supposed to make up a future Palestinian state.
Later, Israeli officials made it clear Sarkozy's statement was
not exactly accurate.
"Israel welcomes the initiative of the French president and the
Egyptian president to bring about a sustainable quiet in the
south," said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev.
But for Israel to accept the proposal, he said, "there has to
be a total and complete cessation of all hostile fire from Gaza
into Israel, and ... we have to see an arms embargo on Hamas that
will receive international support."
For its part, Hamas said it would not accept a truce deal unless
it includes an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza - something
Israel says it is not willing to do.
"There must be guarantees to ensure Israel will not breach this
package, including halting the aggression, lifting the blockade and
opening the crossings," said Ghazi Hamad, a senior Hamas adviser.
Growing international outrage over the human toll of Israel's
offensive, which includes 3,000 Palestinians wounded - could work
against continued fighting. So could President Bush's departure
from office this month and a Feb. 10 election in Israel.
But Israel has a big interest in inflicting as much damage as
possible on Hamas, both to stop militant rocket fire on southern
Israeli towns and to diminish the group's ability to play a spoiler
role in peace talks with Palestinian moderates.
The Israeli Cabinet formally decided on Wednesday to push ahead
with the offensive while at the same time pursuing the cease-fire
option. Israeli officials also rejected Hamas' call to open the
border crossings, which Israel has largely kept closed since the
group seized the territory by force in June 2007.
The military has called up thousands of reserve troops that it
could use to expand the Gaza offensive. Defense officials said the
troops could be ready for action by Friday.
Still, Israel briefly suspended its offensive Wednesday to allow
humanitarian supplies to reach Gaza, and Israeli officials said
such lulls would be declared on a regular basis.
The announcement came among growing warnings by the World Bank
and aid groups of a humanitarian crisis. The Word Bank pointed to a
severe shortage of drinking water and said the sewage system is
under growing strain.
Solafa Odeh, a resident of the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit
Lahia, said around 100 people in her community were lining up for
fresh water outside a local grocery store Wednesday. "We were only
allowed half a gallon each, and I saw some people walk away with
their jerry cans empty," Odeh said.
Of the 688 Palestinians killed since Dec. 27, some 350 were
civilians, among them 130 children, according to Palestinian
officials.
During Wednesday's lull, Israel allowed in 80 trucks of supplies
as well as industrial fuel for Gaza's power plant. Medics tried to
retrieve bodies in areas that had previously been too dangerous to
approach.
The Palestinian Red Crescent said in a statement that one of its
ambulance drivers was shot by Israeli soldiers during the lull. The
Israeli military said it had no knowledge of the incident.
Medic Mohammed Azayzeh in central Gaza pulled out three people,
killed by shrapnel fire Sunday, from the border town of Mughraqa,
where Israeli tanks had settled nearby. The medic said he also
found a dead family of three, including a father cradling a
1-year-old boy.
In the Jebaliya refugee camp, residents on Wednesday held a mass
funeral for 40 people killed a day before by Israeli mortar fire
toward a U.N. school. Israel says Hamas militants fired mortar
shells from an area near the school, and that Israeli responded to
this attack.
The bodies, wrapped in blankets, were laid out in a long row on
the ground, with mourners kneeling in Muslim prayer before them.
Among the mourners was Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas legislator.
Also Wednesday, Israel released footage of suspected Hamas
militants captured by Israeli troops. Israel's chief army
spokesman, Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu, said 120 suspected militants
have been captured. He also said soldiers conducting searches have
uncovered many explosive devices and tunnels.
"We uncovered many tunnels for kidnapping soldiers, at least
one car bomb, booby trapped dolls, tunnels - an underground city,"
Benyahu said on Israel TV's Channel 10.
The CARE aid organization said one of its workers was killed
Monday in an Israeli airstrike.


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