Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Israel calls Gaza assault against Hamas, a 'war to the bitter end'

Tuesday, December 30th 2008



Smoke billows from a targeted location inside the northern Gaza Strip during an Israeli air raid Monday.

JERUSALEM - Israeli forces readied a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip Monday as military leaders declared an "all-out war" against Palestinian militants that would not soon end.

"We are just at the beginning of the battle," said Gen. Dan Harel, deputy chief of the Israel Defense Forces.

"The worst is not behind us - it is still ahead of us - and we should be prepared."

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the Knesset that the Jewish state was in "a war to the bitter end against Hamas and its kind."

In a third day of the deadliest offensive against Palestinians in decades, Israeli jets targeted weapons caches and leveled symbols of Hamas government power, including the seaport, the Interior and Culture Ministry and the presidential palace.

By nightfall, the Palestinian death toll stood at 360.

Most were Hamas officers, but at least 62 civilians, some of them children, were among the Palestinian dead.

Hamas sources told The Jerusalem Post that most of the dead were "ordinary" cops and traffic officers, not the armed militiamen now preparing to fight off a ground invasion.

Hamas claimed the movement's paramilitary wing had been largely unaffected so far.

The human cost of bombarding a territory crowded with 1.5 million people was illustrated in the deaths of five Palestinian sisters, the youngest just 2 years old, in a refugee camp near Gaza City. Israeli jets pounding a mosque next door vaporized their house, burying the girls in rubble.

"It is a tragic illustration of what happens when you use massive means against a densely populated part of the world," said Christopher Gunness, spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency.

The Bush administration blamed Hamas for the violence, saying it has "once again shown its true colors as a terrorist organization" by attacking Israel.

Israel launched the apparently long-planned operation Saturday in response to a steady stream of deadly rockets Hamas has fired into Israeli border towns over the years. The almost daily attacks have sent the local population constantly running into bomb shelters.

Israel says it does not plan to reoccupy the land it quit in 2005. Instead, it aims to topple Hamas by destroying the infrastructure the militant group has built after it won a surprise 2006 electoral victory and took over Gaza last year.

"After this operation, there will not be one Hamas building left standing in Gaza," Harel said. "We are hitting not only terrorists and launchers, but also the whole Hamas government and all its departments."

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for an immediate ceasefire.

Apparently stunned by the ferocity of Israel's strikes, Hamas responded by launching about 60 rockets at Israeli towns up to 20 miles away. They killed three Israelis, including a Bedouin construction worker and a woman waiting for a bus.

Gaza's strained hospitals were unable to cope with the 1,400 wounded, both because of the numbers of injured and because medical supplies have been cut off by Israel's border blockade.

Dr. Medhat Abbas of the Gaza Health Ministry said, "Hospital staff is using bed linens to stop the bleeding. Many patients were lost because of the lack of supplies and equipment."

Egypt briefly opened the Rafah border between Gaza and Egypt to allow nine trucks of emergency medical aid from the Egyptian Red Crescent to enter Gaza.

Officials in Israel distributed thousands of mattresses and ordered residents in the Jewish state into bomb shelters.

Hamas warned that a ground invasion would cost Israel dearly.

The roads into the Gaza Strip are riddled with explosives waiting to be detonated against oncoming tanks. The Islamists have also warned they could resume suicide attacks against Israel for the first time since January 2005 to retaliate for the blitz.

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