Sunday, January 4, 2009

Israeli forces bisect Gaza, surround biggest city

By IBRAHIM BARZAK and MATTI FRIEDMAN, Associated Press Writers Ibrahim Barzak And Matti Friedman, Associated Press Writers
27 mins ago

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israeli ground troops and tanks cut swaths through the Gaza Strip early Sunday, bisecting the coastal territory and surrounding its biggest city as the new phase of a devastating offensive against Hamas gained momentum.

Thousands of soldiers in three brigade-size formations pushed into Gaza after nightfall Saturday, beginning a long-awaited ground offensive after a week of intense aerial bombardment. Black smoke billowed over Gaza City at first light and bursts of machine gun fire rang out.

TV footage showed Israeli troops with night-vision goggles and camouflage face paint marching in single file. Artillery barrages preceded their advance, and they moved through fields and orchards following bomb-sniffing dogs ensuring their routes had not been booby-trapped.

The military said troops killed or wounded dozens of militant fighters, but Palestinian medical teams in Gaza, unable to move because of the fighting, could not provide accurate casualty figures.

Hamas said only four fighters had been killed. Gaza health officials said around 20 civilians had also died in airstrikes and shelling. They included a 12-year-old girl, five members of the same family and another eight civilians killed by a tank shell in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya.

The new deaths brought the toll in the Gaza Strip since Saturday to more than 500. Palestinian and U.N. officials say at least 100 civilians are among the dead.

Army ambulances were seen bringing Israeli wounded to a hospital in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba. The military reported 30 Israeli troops were wounded, two seriously, in the opening hours of the offensive.

In his first public comments since the ground operation was launched, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his Cabinet on Sunday that Israel could not allow its civilians to continue to be targeted by rockets from Gaza.

"This morning I can look every one you in the eyes and say the government did everything before deciding to go ahead with the operation," he said.

A senior military officer said Hamas was well-prepared for the Israeli incursion into Gaza, a densely populated territory of 1.4 million where militants operate and easily hide in the crowded urban landscape. He said the operation was "not a rapid one that would end in hours or a few days."

Still, he said, "We have no intention of staying in the Gaza Strip for the long term." He spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with army regulations.

Israel says the objective is to restore quiet to Israel's south, not to topple Hamas or reoccupy Gaza.

Hamas threatened to turn Gaza into a "graveyard" for Israeli forces.

"You entered like rats," Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan told Israeli soldiers in a statement on Hamas' Al Aqsa TV. "Gaza will be a graveyard for you, God willing."

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday denounced the ground offensive as "brutal aggression," his harshest words yet in describing the assault on his Hamas rivals. Abbas said the situation has become unbearable and that "national unity is the most important thing to us."

His offer to start talks on sharing power still stands, Abbas said, though Hamas last week ignored the invitation.

The ground operation is the second phase in an offensive that began as a weeklong aerial onslaught aimed at halting Hamas rocket fire that has reached deeper and deeper into Israel, threatening major cities and one-eighth of Israel's population.

Rocket fire has persisted, however, and several rockets fell in Israel on Sunday morning, causing no casualties. In much of southern Israel school has been canceled and life has been largely paralyzed.

While the air offensive presented little risk for Israel's army, sending in ground troops is a much more dangerous proposition. Hamas is believed to have some 20,000 gunman who know the dense urban landscape intimately. For months, Israeli leaders had resisted a ground invasion, fearing heavy casualties.

Israel also has called up tens of thousands of reserve soldiers, which defense officials said could enable a far broader ground offensive as the operation's third phase. The troops could also be used in the event Palestinian militants in the West Bank or Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon decide to launch attacks. Hezbollah opened a war against Israel in 2006 when it was in the midst of a large operation in Gaza.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the military's preparations are classified.

An armored force south of Gaza City penetrated as deep as the abandoned settlement of Netzarim, which Israel left along with other Israeli communities when it pulled out of Gaza in 2005, both military officials and Palestinian witnesses said.

That move effectively cut off Gaza City, the territory's largest population center with about 400,000 people, from the rest of the territory to the south.

The offensive focused on northern Gaza, where most of the rockets are fired into Israel, but at least one incursion was reported in the southern part of the strip. Hamas uses smuggling tunnels along the southern border with Egypt to bring in weapons.

Ground forces had not entered major Gaza towns and cities by Sunday morning, instead fighting in rural communities and open areas militants often use to launch rockets and mortar rounds. Militants also fire from heavily populated neighborhoods.

Beit Lahiya was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting. An artillery shell killed eight civilians there as they were fleeing their homes to seek refuge at a nearby school, according to paramedics and Dr. Said Judeh, director of the Kamal Adwan Hospital in town.

The home of a farmer in the Beit Lahiya area was hit twice by artillery, killing a five members of one family, Judeh said.

An airstrike hit an ambulance and three medics were reported in critical condition, officials said.

Residents of the small northern Gaza community of al-Attatra said soldiers moved from house to house by blowing holes through walls. Most of the houses were unoccupied, their residents already having fled.

Hamas militants fired mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades. Field commanders communicated over walkie talkies, updating gunmen on the location of Israeli forces. Commanders told gunmen in the streets not to gather in groups and not to use cell phones.

Israel launched the air campaign against Gaza on Dec. 27 with the aim of halting militant rocket attacks on its south. The operation appears to have slowed, but not halted the rocket fire. Israeli police said 13 rockets landed Sunday, lightly wounding one person.

Hundreds of rockets have hit Israel so far, and four Israelis have been killed. Warning sirens give residents notice of incoming militant rockets and allow them to take cover.

The decision to send ground troops into Gaza was taken after Hamas kept up its rocket fire despite the aerial assault, government officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because discussions leading up to wartime decisions are confidential.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon conveyed his "extreme concern and disappointment" to Olmert and called for an immediate end to the operation, according to a U.N. statement Sunday.

Denunciations also came from the French government, which unsuccessfully proposed a two-day truce earlier this week, and from Egypt, which brokered the six-month truce whose breakdown preceded the Israeli offensive.

But the U.S. has put the blame squarely on Hamas. White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said U.S. officials have been in regular contact with the Israelis as well as officials from countries in the region and Europe.

At an emergency consultation of the U.N. Security Council on Saturday night, the U.S. blocked approval of a statement demanded by Arab countries that would have called for an immediate cease-fire. U.S. deputy ambassador Alejandro Wolff said the U.S. believed that such a statement "would not be adhered to and would have no underpinning for success, (and) would not do credit to the council."

Hamas began to emerge as Gaza's main power broker when it won Palestinian parliamentary elections three years ago.

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