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Israel closes in on Gaza's main city and its goals

JERUSALEM — Israeli troops pushed deep into Gaza's most populated area Sunday, producing some of the fiercest fighting of the 16-day war against Hamas as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared that Israel is "close" to achieving its goals.

Despite international pressure to halt the fighting, which has wreaked havoc for Gaza's 1.5-million people, it could well grow more intense. Israel announced for the first time Sunday night that reservists had joined the fight and were operating in Gaza.

The Israeli military has been warning for days that it would soon begin a "third phase" of its offensive in Gaza, after a week of air raids and another week of ground operations by regular-duty forces.

As of late Sunday night, Israeli troops remained in the open areas on the fringes of Gaza's cities and refugee camps. But in the predawn hours Sunday morning, tanks backed by helicopter gunships had made their furthest push yet into the Gaza City area, home to 400,000 people. Hamas and Islamic Jihad claimed that they ambushed the advancing troops in a Gaza City suburb, Sheikh Ajleen, prompting a pitched battle that ended in the early afternoon.

In the fighting, 27 Palestinians were killed, according to medical officials in Gaza. There was no report of Israeli casualties. The overall Palestinian death toll rose to 876 Sunday, Gazan medical officials said, as many as half of whom were civilians. Thirteen Israelis have been killed since the war began Dec. 27.

Despite Israel's relentless bombardment of Hamas-affiliated targets, rockets continued to fly out of Gaza on Sunday, with more than 20 launched into Israel. Several landed in the city of Beersheba 25 miles away, although no major injuries were reported.

The Israeli air force has launched dozens of attacks on an extensive network of smugglers' tunnels between Gaza and Egypt, and military analysts say that sending ground troops to take the area could be a focus of the Israeli campaign's third phase.

For Gazans, the idea of another escalation is almost too much to bear. In addition to the dead, more than 3,600 Palestinians have been injured, and water, electricity, food and cooking gas have all been in short supply. International aid organizations have said that Gaza is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis.

A Hamas delegation was holding cease-fire talks in Cairo Sunday. Israel was planning to send a Defense Ministry official today.

According to news reports, Olmert and his two top deputies, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, disagree over how the war should end, and the three have argued in recent days over whether Israel should seek a cease-fire with Hamas or unilaterally declare victory. With Israeli elections a month away, the stakes in the war are high for both Livni and Barak, who are vying to succeed Olmert.

Joe the War Correspondent

Joe the Plumber has become a rookie war correspondent, covering Israel's side of its two-week-old military offensive in Gaza. Samuel Wurzelbacher, who rocketed to fame during the U.S. presidential campaign, was in the southern Israeli town of Sderot on Sunday to tell readers of the conservative pjtv.com Web site about the rockets that rain down from the neighboring Gaza Strip. "Why hasn't Israel acted sooner?" Wurzelbacher asked. He described himself as a "peace-loving man," but added, "when someone hits me, I'm going to unload on the boy. And if the rest of the world doesn't understand that, then I'm sorry."

Phosphorus use alleged

Human Rights Watch said Sunday that Israel's military has fired artillery shells with the incendiary agent white phosphorus into Gaza, and a doctor there said the chemical was suspected in the case of 10 burn victims who had skin peeling off their faces and bodies. Researchers in Israel from the rights group witnessed hours of artillery bombardments that sent trails of burning smoke indicating white phosphorus over the Jebaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza. But they could not confirm injuries on the ground because they have been barred from entering the territory. The military declined to comment on whether Israel was using phosphorus but said the army was "using its munitions in accordance with international law."

Protests turn violent

Security forces used tear gas and batons to repel anti-Israel protesters who tried to attack a U.S. consulate in Pakistan on Sunday, as tens of thousands in cities across Europe, the Middle East and Asia demonstrated against Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip. A protest in the Belgian capital that drew 30,000 turned violent as well, with demonstrators overturning cars and smashing shop windows.

Times wires

Israel closes in on Gaza's main city and its goals 01/11/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 10:00am]

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