Israel prepares possible Gaza invasion; air strikes continue

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 28, 2008 

JERUSALEM — Israel Sunday began preparing for a possible ground offensive into the Gaza Strip as its air force continued to pummel the Hamas-controlled region with dozens of new missile strikes in a "shock and awe" operation that's killed 293 Palestinians in two days.

The Israeli military campaign, an attempt to destabilize the militant Islamic group that controls Gaza, is the biggest and deadliest there since Israel seized control of the Mediterranean region from Egypt in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Israeli fighters have hit dozens of targets, including a mosque across from Gaza City's main hospital, police offices, private homes, the Hamas television station and the central prison compound, where dozens of Palestinian inmates were locked in jail cells.

Early Monday, the Israeli military hit the Islamic University in Gaza City, an intellectual incubator for Hamas but also a a respected institution that many Gaza students attend, regardless of their political affiliations.

As Palestinians held scores of funerals across the Gaza Strip, Israel began calling up more than 6,500 reservists and moving more tanks to its Gaza border, signs that the Israeli military may be preparing to send in ground forces as the next phase of the campaign.

Israeli officials stopped short of saying that they were trying to bring down Hamas in Gaza and said the military campaign was designed to compel Gaza militants to end the rocket fire that's killed seven Israelis in the last two years.

Most Hamas leaders remained in hiding as militants fired dozens of crude rockets into southern Israel, though there were no reports of serious injuries. For the first time, two of the Palestinian rockets soared more than 20 miles into Israel and hit the outskirts of Ashdod, Israel's southern port city.

The United Nations Security Council called on both sides to bring the escalating confrontation to an immediate end as protests against the Israeli strikes erupted across the Middle East.

So far, though, most of the international and all of the Bush administration blame has focused on Hamas, which receives support from Iran and is committed to destroying Israel.

"The key issue here was not to point a finger at Israel," said Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "The key issue was to urge all parties to end the violence and address the humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza."

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who said he'd implored his political rivals to avert an Israeli attack by agreeing to extend a six-month cease-fire that expired earlier this month, echoed the criticism of Hamas.

Speaking to reporters after consultations in Egypt, Abbas suggested that Hamas was to blame for the Israeli attack.

"We pleaded (with Hamas): Please do not end the cease-fire. Let it continue so we can avert what has now happened," Abbas said. "And how I wish we had."

The president's stance was a further sign of the internal strains that have fractured Palestinian politics ever since Hamas won free, U.S.-backed democratic elections in 2006.

Ever since, Israel and the United States have led a coordinated international campaign to isolate Hamas.

The political stalemate widened last year when Hamas seized military control of the Gaza Strip by routing forces loyal to Abbas and his more pragmatic Fatah party.

In a further sign of the continued Palestinian divisions, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal called on Palestinians to launch a third uprising against Israel.

In an interview with the Arab satellite television network Al Jazeera from Damascus, Mashaal criticized Arab leaders for cooperating with Israel and urged Palestinians to rise up and fight.

Hours later, U.S.-backed Palestinian security forces reportedly used live fire to quash a demonstration in the West Bank that was called to protest the Israeli attacks in Gaza.

As the air strikes moved into their second evening, Israel declared a state of emergency and began deploying more forces to the south.

Israeli officials trumpeted the success of the early air strikes as a "shock and awe" campaign reminiscent of the U.S. air strikes in the early days of the 2003 Iraq war.

The initial success has been met with widespread praise from the Israeli media.

Nahum Barnea, one of Israel's most respected newspaper columnists, called the surprise Saturday strikes "stroke of brilliance."

"What can be said about the operation at its current stage is: Better late than never," Barnea wrote in Sunday's Yedioth Ahronoth. "It was necessary not only because of the insufferable situation in the Gaza periphery communities but mainly because of the ongoing damage to Israel's power of deterrence. A country that is afraid to deal with Hamas won't be able either to deter Iran or to safeguard its interests in dealing with Syria, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority."

However, Israeli leaders cautioned that the campaign would be "neither short nor easy."

Israeli jet fighters have staged more than 250 missions in the past two days that have killed more than 290 Palestinians and injured hundreds more.

On Sunday, Israeli jets for the first time hit the network of smugglers' tunnels under Gaza's border with Egypt that have provided 1.5 million Palestinians with food, fuel and aid that once came through Israel. Hamas also uses the tunnels to ferry weapons and fighters into Gaza.

The Israeli strikes set off a run on the Gaza-Egypt border by Palestinians looking to escape. Beefed-up Egyptian forces and Hamas fighters exchanged fire on the border, leaving one Egyptian soldier dead.

The Gaza Strip health ministry reported that nearly 70 percent of the victims so far have been members of the Hamas-led security forces.

The strikes have already killed scores of civilians, however. The United Nations refugee organization in the West Bank said Sunday that shrapnel from an Israeli air strike had killed seven students in one of its schools.

Israeli military spokesman Elie Isaacson said the air force was striking Hamas targets, including the group's television station and the mosque, which he claimed was being used to store weapons.

Israel allowed a small amount of humanitarian supplies into Gaza on Sunday to help overwhelmed hospitals dealing with a continuing inflow of injured Palestinians.

At Gaza City's main hospital, doctors and nurses struggled to deal with the most challenging emergency in their lives.

Ambulances and private cars pulled up to the main entrance in waves as doctors sorted the dead from the living. Faced with growing shortages of supplies and full beds, hospital officials began treating moderately wounded patients and sending them home. McClatchy special correspondent Ahmed Abu Hamda contributed to this report from Gaza City.

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