Israel launches air assault on Gaza, killing more than 225

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 27, 2008 

JERUSALEM — The Israeli military Saturday unleashed a devastating series of air strikes on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, targeting security compounds and killing more than 225 people in the deadliest day of the decade for Palestinians.

Saturday night, medical officials in Gaza said that 225 people were killed and at least 400 more were injured in the prolonged Israeli attacks, which propelled Israel's confrontation with the militant Islamic group into a new and even more volatile phase.

The Bush administration gave tacit support for the assault by blaming Hamas for provoking the Israeli attack.

"We strongly condemn the repeated rocket and mortar attacks against Israel and hold Hamas responsible for breaking the cease-fire and for the renewal of violence there," said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a statement. "The cease-fire must be restored immediately and fully respected. The United States calls on all concerned to protect innocent lives and to address the urgent humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza."

The Israeli strikes and the Bush administration's response to them could spark a new spiral of violence, undermine stagnant peace talks with moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and make it harder for President-elect Barack Obama to push new diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East when he takes office next month.

Israeli leaders, however, said they could no longer allow Gaza militants to fire rockets into southern Israel. Rocket and mortar attacks have killed at least seven Israelis in the last two years, including one Saturday.

"There is a time for calm and a time for fighting, and now the time has come for fighting," Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a televised news conference Saturday evening after the first rounds of air strikes had been launched.

While the Gaza Strip and West Bank have both been hit by intense Israeli strikes in the past, Saturday was the deadliest day of the decade for Palestinians. Even during the height of the second Palestinian uprising and Israel's "Operation Defensive Shield" in 2002, no day has been as bloody.

"Never, never, never in our history in Gaza have we seen such a scale of killing in one hour," said Dr. Eyad Sarraj, the founder of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, an independent non-profit in Gaza City. "The scale is horrifying."

The impact of the attacks cascaded across the Middle East, with Israeli soldiers clashing with demonstrators in East Jerusalem, Islamist demonstrators in Amman demanding revenge, the Arab League calling an emergency meeting and Hamas leaders in Damascus vowing to respond with force.

Throughout the day, Gaza militants fired dozens of homemade rockets into southern Israel, including one that hit a home, killing one person and injuring several others.

While United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an end to the Israeli strikes and the Palestinian rocket attacks, Israeli air strikes are expected to continue, though military officials said there were no immediate plans to send ground forces into Gaza.

In a live, televised address that nearly coincided with an evening air strike in Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his country to brace for a prolonged and potentially costly military operation. He also issued an appeal to the 1.5 million Palestinians living under Hamas rule in Gaza.

"You, the citizens of Gaza, are not our enemies," Olmert said. "Hamas, (Islamic) Jihad and the other terrorist organizations are your enemies, as they are our enemies. They brought disaster on you, and they tried to bring disaster to the people of Israel."

Palestinian leaders across the political spectrum, however, denounced the Israeli attack as destabilizing and provocative. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum called the strikes a "massacre" and said the Islamist group would respond in kind.

Mustafa Barghouti, a moderate West Bank Palestinian lawmaker and former Palestinian Authority information minister, called on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to cut off peace talks with Israel immediately.

"This is an attack on the whole Palestinian population," said Barghouti.

Although Israel has warned for days that it was preparing to attack, the air strikes appeared to catch Hamas officials off-guard. At the time of the first bombing run Saturday morning, Gaza Strip security compounds were bustling. Security forces at one Gaza City police compound were seen training in the courtyard before the strike, and gruesome television footage showed dozens of bloody, uniformed Palestinians lying lifeless in the courtyard after the attack, which Hamas said hit a graduation ceremony.

Israeli planes hit virtually every Palestinian security center in the Gaza Strip, including the main police compound in Gaza City, the intelligence headquarters and the beachside presidential compound that Hamas took over in June 2007 when its militant wing routed forces loyal to Abbas.

Ambulances rushed from one bombing target to another as survivors cried out in anguish and defiance. Palestinians piled the dead into the backs of pick-up trucks and hustled the living into private cars that rushed to frenzied hospitals.

Dr. Muawiya Hassanein, the head of emergency services for the Hamas-controlled Ministry of Health in Gaza, said that most of the Palestinians killed in the strikes were members of the Gaza Strip police and security services, including Maj. Gen. Tawfiq Jaber, the head of the Gaza Strip police force. The attacks, however, also killed women and children.

Gaza tailor Mohammed Mouwayad was on his way to pay a phone bill Saturday morning when the first air strike hit the nearby police headquarters. Mouwayad said the force of the blast sent him sprawling to the pavement, and then a ghostly man covered in dust from the explosion helped him to the hospital.

As the two men hustled on foot through the rubble to the main Gaza hospital nearby, ambulances and cars filled with the wounded rushed past them. Then a second blast rocked another police station nearby.

"It felt like the whole world was blowing up," said Mouwayad.

The casualties overwhelmed the Gaza Strip medical system, which has been drained of critical supplies by Israeli policy, which for months has prevented most medical aid from getting into the Hamas-controlled area.

As the attacks continued, Egypt dispatched ambulances to its border with Gaza and said it would allow injured Palestinians out for immediate treatment.

Israel staged the strikes after trying unsuccessfully to secure a new cease-fire with Hamas, which agreed to a temporary six-month truce that broke down earlier this month.

The cease-fire brokered by Egypt brought relative calm, but it failed to lay the groundwork for further progress in talks between Israel and Hamas, which seized military control of Gaza in June 2007.

Palestinian militants sporadically fired rockets into southern Israel during the cease-fire, and Israel never allowed supplies to resume reaching Gaza, a move that Hamas said violated the terms of the truce.

The truce unraveled for good on Nov. 4 when Israeli soldiers entered Gaza for the first time during the cease-fire to destroy a tunnel that the military said was set to be used to mount an attack inside Israel. Gaza militants responded by firing rockets into southern Israel, and the calm never returned.

In recent weeks, Israel also has barred international journalists and diplomats from entering Gaza on most days, making it more difficult to report independently on the situation there.

Dion Nissenbaum reported from Jerusalem. McClatchy special correspondent Ahmed Abu Hamda reported from Gaza City. Warren P. Strobel contributed from Washington.

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