Israeli troops dance as they await the order for a Gaza war

An Israeli tank unit along the Gaza Strip border prepares  for a possible ground offensive against Hamas. The sign in Hebrew is a quote from Job: His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth forth from his mouth.
An Israeli tank unit along the Gaza Strip border prepares for a possible ground offensive against Hamas. The sign in Hebrew is a quote from Job: His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth forth from his mouth. Dion Nissenbaum / MCT

ALONG THE ISRAEL-GAZA STRIP BORDER — In a muddy field overlooking the smoke-blackened Gaza Strip skyline on Tuesday, young soldiers from an Israeli tank unit linked arms with euphoric civilians and joined them in the hora, a circular dance, in anticipation of a possible ground invasion of the Palestinian territory.

Far overhead, a pair of Israeli Apache helicopters fired on a target inside Gaza, unleashed diversionary flares and disappeared to the north. Elsewhere in the autonomous Palestinian region, Israeli jets, helicopters and ships pummeled the area with new strikes against dozens of targets.

Hour after hour, Israeli jets, helicopters and ships pummeled the region with new strikes against dozens of targets as diplomats took the first tentative steps to head off a ground offensive.

Four days into the Israeli military campaign, the death toll among Palestinians topped 370, including at least 90 civilians, according to U.N. personnel and Palestinian human rights workers.

Palestinian rocket attacks have killed four people on the Israeli side since the offensive began Saturday, and Israel says its military operation won't end until the rockets stop crashing into Israeli cities.

Gaza militants warned of dire consequences should Israeli leaders launch a new, more dangerous phase of the offensive to destabilize the militant Islamist group Hamas, which controls Gaza, and end the sporadic rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza.

"If you enter Gaza, the children will collect your flesh and the remains of your tanks, which will be spread out through the streets," said a leading Hamas spokesman, who goes by the nom-de-guerre Abu Obeida, in a videotaped statement delivered to reporters in the Gaza Strip.

The militants fired rockets ever-deeper into Israel Tuesday, with one of about 40 harmlessly hitting the outskirts of Beersheba, a city with 185,000 residents about 28 miles from the Gaza Strip border.

On the Israeli side of the frontier, however, the prospect of an expanded war unleashed a surge of emotions. Huge speakers blasted religious songs from the tops of two beat-up cars that brought dozens of civilians to cheer on some of the thousands of troops who would take part in any possible ground invasion.

"His breath kindleth coals," read a quote from Job in Hebrew on a sign alongside the Israeli tank unit at the staging area on the border. "And a flame goeth forth from his mouth."

"It's a war," said a 25-year-old Israeli military police captain. "We have to go in. What else can we do?" The officer declined to give his name because he said he could be disciplined for talking a reporter.

International pressure for a cease-fire was building Tuesday, but the Bush administration, which has blamed Hamas for the crisis and declined to criticize Israel's actions, hasn't demanded an immediate cease-fire.

European ministers, meeting in Paris, called Tuesday evening for an "immediate and permanent cease-fire," as well as the opening of all border crossings into the Gaza Strip. That call was echoed at the United Nations following a conference call that included Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and representatives from the European Union and Russia.

President George W. Bush and Rice intensified their telephone diplomacy, with Rice urging Arab leaders to pressure Hamas to accept a cease-fire and halt rocket attacks on Israel, according to diplomats and others briefed on the talks.

Israeli officials said privately that Defense Minister Ehud Barak was contemplating a French proposal for a 48-hour cease-fire to alleviate the crisis.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, however, quickly dismissed the idea.

"Israel thinks that taking the pressure off Hamas, giving them a respite to regroup and rearm and prepare for a second round is a mistake," said Olmert spokesman Mark Regev.

Regev emphasized that Israel was "open to every creative humanitarian idea" to allow more aid into Gaza.

However, Israel Tuesday targeted more of the elaborate network of smugglers' tunnels between Egypt and Gaza that's provided the main supply line for 1.5 million Palestinians living in the densely populated Mediterranean region.

With more tunnels shut down, supplies are running dangerously low in Gaza. Israel and Egypt have allowed in limited amounts of aid, but Palestinians said that demand was far outstripping supply.

Grocery stores were reported to be running out of food. Large swaths of the Gaza Strip were thrown into longer blackouts, and hospital blood supplies have run low.

Israel allowed five ambulances provided by Turkey to enter Gaza as Palestinian hospitals struggled to deal with more than 1,800 people injured in the ongoing assault.

Earlier Tuesday, the Israeli navy rammed a 60-foot yacht run owned by pro-Palestinian activists that tried to bring three tons of medical aid from Cyprus to Gaza. The boat, which previously had made four trips from Larnaca to Gaza, was forcibly turned away by the Israeli navy and limped back north to Lebanon.

Not all the Israeli civilians called up in the crisis were eager for the ground offensive.

"I really hope it will end in a short time with some kind of settlement," said Tal, a 33-year-old Israeli reservist with a tank unit stationed near the Gaza border. "I think we made a big achievement and now I really hope the other side will stop shooting."

Tal, a veterinarian from the Tel Aviv area who fought in Israel's 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, said the military was far better prepared this time.

"We made a lot of stupid mistakes," he said of the 2006 war that led to the resignation of Israel's defense minister and other top leaders who were blamed for leading the military into a costly ground offensive.

"I think this time we are doing much better," Tal said while taking a coffee break near the Gaza border. "We are talking less and doing more."

The Israeli military has told soldiers to expect booby-trapped tunnels, roadside bombs and other hazards if they punch into Gaza, and Israeli troops know that fighting in the densely populated Gaza Strip will be difficult, dangerous and deadly.

"I really think it will be bad for the two sides because, if we go inside, there will be lots of civilian casualties and a lot of soldiers might be killed," Tal said before heading back to his unit to continue preparing for battle.

(McClatchy special correspondent Ahmed Abu Hamda in Gaza City and Warren P. Strobel in Washington contributed to this article.)


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