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Gaza death toll climbs as Israel intensifies assault

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip

Israel widened its deadliest-ever air offensive against Gaza's Hamas rulers Sunday, pounding smuggling tunnels and a central prison, sending more tanks and artillery toward the Gaza border and approving a reserves callup for a possible ground invasion.

Israeli leaders said they would press ahead with the Gaza campaign, despite enraged protests across the Arab world and Syria's decision to break off indirect peace talks with the Jewish state. Israel's foreign minister said the goal was to halt Gaza rocket fire on Israel for good, but not to reoccupy the territory.

With the two-day death toll climbing above 290 Sunday, crowds of Gazans breached the border wall with Egypt to escape the chaos. Egyptian forces, some firing in the air, tried to push them back into Gaza, and an official said one border guard was killed.

Hamas, in turn, fired missiles deeper than ever into Israel, near the Israeli port city of Ashdod, and continues to command some 20,000 fighters.

Yet Hamas leaders were forced into hiding, most of the dead were from the Hamas security forces, and Israel's military intelligence chief said Hamas' ability to fire rockets had been reduced by 50 percent. Indeed, Hamas rocket fire dropped off sharply, from more than 130 on Saturday to just over 20 on Sunday.

Israel's intense bombings — some 300 airstrikes since midday Saturday — wreaked unprecedented destruction in Gaza, reducing entire buildings to rubble.

Shlomo Brom, a former senior Israeli military official, said it was the deadliest force ever used in decades of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. "Since Hamas took over Gaza (in June 2007), it has become a war between two states, and in war between states, more force is used," he said.

In the most dramatic attacks Sunday, warplanes struck dozens of smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border, cutting off a lifeline that had supplied Hamas with weapons and Gaza with commercial goods. The influx of goods had helped Hamas defy an 18-month blockade of Gaza by Israel and Egypt and was key to propping up its rule.

Warplanes also dropped three bombs on one of Hamas' main security compounds in Gaza City, including a prison. Moments after the blasts, frantic inmates scrambled down the rubble.

Gaza's nine hospitals were overwhelmed. Dr. Moawiya Hassanain, who keeps a record for the Gaza Health Ministry, said more than 290 people were killed and more than 800 wounded.

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights, which keeps researchers at all hospitals, said that it had counted 251 dead by midday Sunday and that among them were 20 children under the age of 16 and nine women.

In Jerusalem, Israel's Cabinet approved a callup of 6,500 reserve soldiers, in apparent preparation for a ground offensive. Israel has doubled the number of troops on the Gaza border since Saturday and also deployed an artillery battery. It was not clear, though, whether the deployment was meant to pressure Hamas or whether Israel is determined to send ground troops.

Since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, Israeli forces have repeatedly returned to the territory to hunt militants. However, Israel has shied away from retaking the entire strip, for fear of getting bogged down in urban warfare. Military experts said Israel would need at least 10,000 soldiers for a full-scale invasion.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said it was unclear when the operation would end but told his Cabinet it was "liable to last longer than we are able to foresee at this time."

Obama's plate fuller

When President-elect Obama visited Israel in July, he all but endorsed the punishing Israeli attacks now unfolding. "If somebody was sending rockets into my house, where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that," he said. "And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing." Now, Obama's presidency will begin facing the consequences of such a counterattack, presenting him with another foreign crisis to deal with. India and Pakistan announced troop movements that have raised fears of a war. North Korea scuttled an agreement on its nuclear dismantlement. Iran continues to stall efforts to stop its programs. Oh, and there are still two wars churning in Iraq and Afghanistan.

New York Times

Chronology

June 1967: Israel captures the Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip during six-day Mideast war. An Israeli census put the population at 380,000, at least half of whom were refugees from Israel. Today the population stands at about 1.5-million. The U.N. lists just over 1-million as refugees and their descendants.

December 1987: A clash in the Jebaliya refugee camp sets off Palestinian uprising, which lasted until 1993 and claimed the lives of more than 2,000 Palestinians and 192 Israelis. The militant Islamic Hamas is formed early in the uprising.

September 2005: Israel withdraws its troops and all of its 8,500 Jewish settlers. It retains control of Gaza's airspace, coastal waters and border crossings.

June 2007: Hamas violently seizes control of Gaza after routing forces loyal to rival Fatah faction of President Mahmoud Abbas.

June 2008: Hamas and Israel reach truce to halt the cross-border rocket attacks and end Israeli offensives in Gaza.

November: Palestinians resume rocket and mortar fire into Israel after Israeli incursion.

Dec. 19: Hamas formally declares the truce over, rocket fire on Israel intensifies.

Dec. 27: Israel launches a fierce air offensive, killing more than 200 Palestinians in the first day.

Associated Press

Gaza death toll climbs as Israel intensifies assault 12/28/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 29, 2008 6:06pm]

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