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Israel expands control of Gaza; protests grow

Israeli soldiers enter the Gaza Strip from Israel during a combat mission Sunday. Ground troops and tanks bisected the coastal territory and moved to surround its biggest city. Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel continued.

Associated Press

Israeli soldiers enter the Gaza Strip from Israel during a combat mission Sunday. Ground troops and tanks bisected the coastal territory and moved to surround its biggest city. Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel continued.

ON THE ISRAELI-GAZA BORDER

Israeli troops and tanks, protected by heavy air, sea and artillery fire, sliced through the center of Gaza on Sunday, taking control of rocket-launching areas and surrounding the main city, as their government rebuffed diplomatic efforts to end the nine-day assault.

In Gaza, residents faced severe power shortages and other deprivations as the reported death toll passed 500, of whom 100 were said to be civilians.

Following a week of air raids and high expectations produced by the days of massing Israeli troops on the border, the first 24 hours of ground combat appeared to have been comparatively restrained. Hamas, the Islamist rulers of Gaza, had warned that Israeli ground troops would find themselves trapped, resulting in numerous casualties.

The battles so far have been outside urban areas, however, and Israel reported the death of only one soldier. Five Israelis in all, including civilians, have been reported killed in the conflict.

Senior Israeli officials said the fighting could go on for days, if not weeks, and said that calls for a cease-fire were premature.

Israel aimed its power at Hamas' fighters and infrastructure and said its forces had killed several dozen militants, including a senior leader, and destroyed a smuggling tunnel.

Palestinian officials did not confirm the militants' deaths, and it was difficult for foreign news organizations to verify Israel's claims, because they have been restricted from entering Gaza.

At Shifa, Gaza City's main hospital, dozens of casualties that were observed being brought in over many hours all appeared to be civilians. Most of the fighting was taking place in northern and eastern Gaza, in areas not far from the Israeli border. But at least five civilians were killed and many wounded on Sunday morning when Israeli shells or rockets landed in the market of Gaza City while people were stocking up on supplies.

Israel has said it wants to end Hamas' will or ability to shoot rockets at civilians in southern Israel, which Hamas has been doing for years, terrifying tens of thousands of inhabitants. Recent rocket attacks have been of longer range and greater power, suggesting that Hamas has been successfully arming itself in recent months and adding urgency to Israel's efforts to stop them.

But Israel has not made clear whether its goal of ending rocket fire would include ending Hamas' 18-month rule. The rockets continued Sunday, with some 45 hitting Israel. Six people with minor injuries were reported across southern Israel.

Rage in the Arab and Muslim worlds intensified over Israel's war, with demonstrations in recent days in Turkey and Lebanon as well as in a number of European capitals. The leaders of Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, which have diplomatic relations with Israel, condemned the attacks as disproportionate and called for them to end.

There have been scattered arrests of protesters, including seven Israeli Arabs, since Israel began its offensive in Gaza on Saturday night.

But the United States placed the onus on Hamas, saying it must stop the rockets. The European Union, currently headed by the Czech Republic, was increasingly critical of Israel and urged the Israelis to allow more aid into Gaza, saying it worried about rising civilian casualties.

As one Israeli official said about efforts to end the operation, "We still have time."

Mark Regev, spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said that Olmert had been constantly on the phone with world leaders and that the goal of the conversations was to construct a mechanism for a cease-fire.

Regev said that the point of the fighting was "to reach a situation where there will be quiet in the south and international support for that quiet."

At the United Nations, the United States blocked the Security Council from issuing a formal statement on Saturday night calling for an immediate cease-fire, saying that there was no indication that Hamas would abide by any agreement.

The emergency meeting, called by France, was the latest failed attempt at finding a diplomatic solution at the United Nations. The Security Council has already met three times since the war began.

fast facts

Cheney didn't know; Bloomberg backs Israel

Vice President Dick Cheney said Sunday that Israel did not seek U.S. approval before sending ground troops into Gaza. "They didn't seek clearance or approval from us, certainly. They have said, now, for a period of months, ... (that) if the rocketing didn't stop, they felt they had no choice but to take action," Cheney said.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg expressed solidarity with Israelis on Sunday in a trip to Israel. "I think as a New Yorker, we've been attacked twice by al-Qaida itself," Bloomberg said. "You sort of feel you have a bond, if you will, for those … subject to someone trying to kill them."

Washington Post, Associated Press

Israel expands control of Gaza; protests grow 01/04/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 6, 2009 1:48pm]

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