NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Monday, January 12th 2009
BY MATTHEW KALMAN Jerusalem and HELEN KENNEDY in New York
DAILY NEWS WRITERS
Israeli leaders hinted Sunday the Gaza assault might soon wind down, even as thousands of fresh reservists joined the battle and infantry units pushed toward the crowded heart of Gaza City.
"It would seem that we are close to ending the ground operation - and ending the operation altogether," Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said.
"Israel is nearing the goals that it set for itself," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.
"However, further patience, determination and effort are necessary."
Olmert has said the aim of Operation Cast Lead, which has killed 878 Palestinians and 12 Israelis in 16 days, was to halt the shower of Hamas rockets fired into Israel.
Officials have said they do not plan to reoccupy Gaza or wipe out Hamas, but have contingency plans ready to do just that.
At least two dozen Hamas rockets fell on Israeli towns Sunday, including one that landed near a kindergarten in Ashdod and another that landed in the backyard of a house in Sderot.
There were no injuries.
The Gaza City skyline was blotted with plumes of black smoke as Israeli soldiers, backed by hovering helicopter gunships, advanced toward the city center from the southwest, the east and the north.
Thousands of reservists were massing on the border, including commandos versed in close-quarter urban combat.
Israeli war planes continued to bombard targets up and down the 20-mile-long strip. They said they were hitting explosives tunnels, underground missile launchers and hidden weapons caches.
Israel's military intelligence chief, Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin, said a split was emerging between Hamas leaders in Damascus, who want to keep fighting, and Hamas leaders in Gaza, who were considering compromise.
"Hamas is crying, 'Stop.' They are dying to respond to the blow they received and recover from their lack of operative successes in the field. On the other hand, they don't want to wave the white flag," Yadlin said.
"The Hamas leadership in Damascus is isolated. Their leadership in Gaza is paralyzed. Their military wing is evasive," he added.
Meanwhile, the United Nations resumed food deliveries after receiving assurances from the Israeli Army there would be no repeat of two attacks on UN trucks last week.
Filippo Grandi, an official with the UN refugee agency, said most ordinary Palestinians in Gaza didn't have a political agenda but they were becoming "terrified, starving, thirsty and traumatized, more desperate and more angry."