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.