Gaza battles rage as death toll nears 1 000

Gaza City - Israel bombed smuggling tunnels and battled fighters in Gaza streets on Wednesday as UN chief Ban Ki-moon arrived in the region seeking to end the war on Hamas that has killed nearly 1 000 people.

Rockets slammed into northern Israel from Lebanon, the second such attack in less than a week that sent echoes of 2006, when war broke out between Israel and Hezbollah amid the Jewish state's last major offensive in Gaza.

Israel's deadliest ever operation in Gaza entered its 19th day with the army pummelling the densely-populated Palestinian enclave with more than 60 air and naval strikes, medics and the army said.

Warplanes blasted Gaza's southern border with Egypt with some three dozen bombing raids, sending panicked residents fleeing, witnesses said.

Gaza's Islamist Hamas rulers have repeatedly vowed to keep fighting and on Wednesday, nine rockets and mortars were fired into Israel from Gaza, the army said.

A senior Israeli defence official told AFP that the war, which has killed some 400 civilians and has sparked outrage across the Muslim world, could well continue until the January 20 inauguration of US president-elect Barack Obama.

"Israel is still waiting for guarantees on solving the issue of weapon smuggling and things are moving in Cairo," he said on condition of anonymity.

"Nevertheless, Israel is not feeling any pressure at this point to end the operation," he said.

"The only real exit point we can see at this time would be when Obama enters the White House."

Arriving in Cairo at the start of a regional tour, Ban again pleaded for a "an immediate and durable ceasefire".

"I again urge both parties to stop now, to stop the fighting now, there is no time to lose," Ban said.

Ban is also due to travel to Jordan, Israel, the West Bank city of Ramallah, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Kuwait, where he was to attend an Arab League summit next Monday.

But the prime minister of the Czech Republic, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency said he was was pessimistic on a swift truce.

"The conflict has been going on for 60 years and I don't have any illusions, I don't think we are going to see a resolution tomorrow. Above all we need to try to reduce the violence and obtain a ceasefire," Mirek Topolanek told the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

"But at this point I am fairly sceptical that we will achieve it very soon."

Egypt, which brokered a six-month truce between Israel and Hamas last June, has been spearheading truce efforts.

A Hamas delegation is currently in Cairo for talks on a Western-backed proposal drawn up by President Hosni Mubarak, which calls for an immediate halt to the violence, talks on opening crossings into the Gaza Strip and securing Gaza borders and a restart to Palestinian reconciliation talks.

A senior source in Cairo indicated Egypt was getting increasingly frustrated at Hamas's response so far to its initiative, saying "they need to say 'yes', now, to our plan".

A top Hamas leader, Mussa Abu Marzuk, acknowledged the movement had "substantial observations" about the initiative but said there was "still a chance" they would accept it.

Amos Gilad, Israel's pointman for the Gaza truce talks and a senior aide to Defence Minister Ehud Barak, was due to arrive in Cairo on Thursday for his second visit in a week.

Since Israel unleashed Operation Cast Lead on Hamas on December 27, at least 985 Palestinians have been killed, including 292 children, and more than 4 500 people wounded, according to Gaza medics.

Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians have been killed in combat or by rocket attacks during the same time.

Gaza militants have launched some 700 rockets and mortar into Israel since the start of the offensive, according to the army.

The offensive has sparked widespread concern about a humanitarian crisis breaking out in one of the world's most densely populated places where half of the population is under 18 years of age.

Aid agencies have warned of a growing humanitarian crisis because the vast majority of the 1.5 million population depends on foreign aid.

Prior to the war, the enclave was reeling from a punishing Israeli blockade that Israel imposed after Hamas, the Islamist movement sworn to the Jewish state's destruction, violently seized power in Gaza in June 2007.

Meanwhile, rockets fired from Lebanon slammed into northern Israel on Wednesday without causing injuries or damage, with no group claiming responsibility for the second such attack in less than a week.

Hezbollah denied any involvement in last week's strike, but analysts have said in Lebanon that the Shiite militia likely gave it tacit approval. - AFP


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