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Sunday, 28 December 2008

Israel strikes Gaza in 2nd day of attacks; troops mass at Palestinian border

NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Monday, December 29

BY ERICA SILVERMAN in Gaza City, MATTHEW KALMAN in Jerusalem, and HELEN KENNEDY in New York
DAILY NEWS WRITERS

Israel began massing troops and tanks near the Gaza Strip on Sunday as it pounded the Palestinian territory with a second day of "shock and awe" air strikes aimed at wiping out the militant Hamas government.

Israeli warplanes demolished a network of tunnels used to smuggle weapons, fuel and food into the blockaded territory of 1.5 million people. They also flattened a major prison and hit the campus of Islamic University in Gaza City.

About 300 Gazans, many of them Hamas cops and security forces, were killed in the two days of bombings, and an estimated 900 were wounded.

It was the bloodiest weekend for Palestinians since the 1967 Six-Day War. Hospitals and morgues couldn't keep up with the carnage, and bodies piled up as devastated relatives wailed in gore-slick corridors.

All signs pointed to the situation escalating.

Israel called up 6,500 reservists and began moving armored units to the Gaza border, paving the way for a ground invasion that could last several weeks.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who is running for prime minister in Israel's Feb. 10 election, said Israel wanted to stop Hamas rockets - not reconquer the territory it quit in 2005.

"Our goal is not to reoccupy Gaza Strip," she said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

The air strikes aimed to destroy the infrastructure Hamas built since it won a surprise 2006 electoral victory over the moderate Fatah Party and took over Gaza last year.

It appeared to be a replay of the 2006 Israeli war on Hezbollah in Lebanon, where a minor border ambush triggered a devastating air assault, followed by an ill-fated ground battle.

In Sunday's air strikes, the high-rises of Gaza City shook and glass showered into the streets. Terrified prisoners fled the rubble of the Gaza City jail, their faces streaked white with dust and red with blood.

People brought wounded relatives and blankets filled with body parts to the hospital.

"I have a head here!" a man yelled as he rushed into Shifa Hospital, where the floors were slippery with blood.

Among the dead were seven teenage students at a UN-run school killed in an air strike while waiting for a bus, said Christopher Gunness, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

"Death is everywhere this morning," he said.

Crowds of Palestinians using bulldozers knocked down parts of a border wall with Egypt to escape the bombardment.

Egyptian border guards opened fire on some of the Palestinians, witnesses said.

Hamas threatened to mobilize a new wave of suicide bombers and vowed to target Livni and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, as well as the Fatah leadership.

"These strikes fuel our popular support, our military power and the firmness of our positions," said Hamas legislator Mushir al-Masri. "We will survive. We will move forward. We will not surrender. We will not be shaken."

Israel's "Operation Cast Lead" began Saturday, a week after a six-month ceasefire expired. Hamas had been steadily firing rockets into Israel, doing little damage but spreading daily fear.

With an election coming up, the Israeli government decided to abandon restraint.

"The Palestinians asked for a ceasefire, and we agreed. They themselves have violated the ceasefire. We didn't know why," said Israeli President Shimon Peres. "We were left without a choice but to bring an end to it."

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