Israel rebuffs cease-fire calls as Gaza casualties rise

JERUSALEM — French President Nicolas Sarkozy and a European delegation Monday pleaded for Israel to call a temporary halt to its 10-day-old offensive in Gaza, but top Israeli leaders, with the explicit backing of President George W. Bush, made it clear that they aren't ready to end the fighting.

Adding to the public pressure for a halt in the campaign was the rapidly rising death toll, which Palestinian medical officials put at 550, including 111 children. The numbers couldn't be verified, because Israel has barred international news media from Gaza since the operation began, but televised images of wounded civilians, and especially children, have caused outrage in Europe and the Arab world.

The Israeli military announced early Tuesday morning that three members of its storied Golani Brigade had been killed and two dozen others were injured when one of their own tanks mistakenly opened fire and hit an members of an Israeli infantry unit taking up positions in a northern Gaza Strip building.

The friendly fire incident came as the Israeli military was stepping up its ground operations Monday night and closing in on the heart of Gaza City. During an intense evening firefight, Israeli forces met their most serious resistance to date, facing Palestinian fighters who reportedly used anti-tank rockets.

Until Monday, only one Israeli soldier had been killed in the 10-day-old military campaign.

Among those injured was Col. Avi Peled, the commander of the elite Golani Brigade, a highly decorated unit that led Israel's famous 1976 hostage rescue operation in Entebbe, Uganda, that freed nearly 250 Jewish airplane passengers held by Palestinian hijackers.

If the civilian casualty figures are confirmed, it would mark a dramatic spike in civilian casualties from the early days of Israeli air strikes that primarily targeted Hamas-controlled police stations, the homes of Hamas leaders, government buildings and mosques that the Israeli military said were being used by the militant Islamic group to store weapons.

Eleven members of one family, including five children, were killed in a northern Gaza City neighborhood early Monday morning after Israeli forces ordered them to leave their home, medical officials said.

Civilian deaths are likely to rise as the Israeli forces move in on the narrow city streets and refugee camp alleys where Gaza militants have taken up positions.

"Usually you have people trying to flee the area of conflict," said John Ging, the head of the United Nations refugee agency in the Gaza Strip. "But they don't have this choice in Gaza because they are trapped in a very, very densely populated area."

Palestinian militants continued Monday to fire sporadic volleys of rockets and mortar rounds into southern Israel, even as Israeli soldiers sought to seize areas of the Gaza Strip from which they're routinely fired. Palestinian rocket attacks have killed four Israeli civilians in the past 10 days.

After meeting Monday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, in the West Bank between Israel and Jordan, Sarkozy renewed his call for a 48-hour truce to head off a deepening humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

"We in Europe want a cease-fire as quickly as possible, and that everyone understands that time is running against peace," Sarkozy said. "The guns must fall silent."

In parallel, a three-person European Union delegation met Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni Monday to call for an immediate cease-fire.

"We are not sharing the view that the cease-fire is only possible if all possible aims of the Israeli action are achieved," said Karel Schwarzenberg, the foreign minister of the Czech Republic, which became the leader of the 27-member body last week.

In Washington, however, the State Department echoed Israel's call for a cease-fire that would also halt weapons smuggling into Gaza, and officials said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was discussing a three-part deal with foreign counterparts.

Israel has said that its goals in the conflict are substantially curbing Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza, boosting its image as a feared Middle East military power and preventing Palestinian militants from smuggling munitions through tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.

Bush, in his first public comments on the 10 day-old crisis, blamed Hamas for the violence. "All of us, of course, would like to see violence stopped — but not at the expense of an agreement that does not prevent the crisis from happening again," he said.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Rice is pursuing a cease-fire that would end rocket attacks on Israel, reopen Gaza's border crossings and halt weapons smuggling into Gaza via an extensive network of tunnels.

Various ideas are being floated for international or other monitors to secure Gaza's borders. One possibility, although still remote, is the return of security forces of Hamas's rival, the Palestinian Authority, which Hamas forcibly ejected from Gaza in June 2007, diplomats said.

Whether Hamas would agree to that is far from certain. "We're trying to figure out what the right mix of monitors should be," said a State Department official, who requested anonymity because decisions haven't yet been made. Egypt, which borders Gaza, is "going to have to carry a lot of water."

Hamas leaders have refused to stop firing rockets until Israel pulls its forces out of Gaza. On Monday, top Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar appeared for the first time since Israel launched the military operation.

Speaking in an amateur videotaped message, Zahar castigated Israel for the military campaign.

"The Zionists have legitimized the killing of their children by killing our children," Zahar said.

Israel briefly reopened its border crossings to allow in a limited supply of fuel to restart the Gaza Strip's only electric power plant and to replenish supplies of cooking fuel.

Israel, however, was able to deliver only 40 truckloads of aid because Palestinians on the other side of the border were afraid to venture out because of the fighting, said Maj. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman.

(McClatchy special correspondent Ahmed Abu Hamda contributed to this article from Gaza.)


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