Sunday, 4 January 2009

Thousands of Israeli troops move deeper into Gaza, surrounding biggest city in close combat

Monday, January 5th 2009

BY MATTHEW KALMAN in Jerusalem and HELEN KENNEDY in New York


Israeli soldiers clean their cannon as they keep their position in the Israeli side of Israel-Gaza border on Sunday.

Thousands of Israeli troops backed by tanks and helicopter gunships began to surround Gaza City on Sunday in the first full day of the ground war against Hamas militants.

"Hamas needs a real and serious lesson. They are now getting it," said Israeli President Shimon Peres. "They are now beginning to feel the weight of their mistakes."

As the ground invasion got underway, Israeli forces effectively split the narrow Gaza Strip in two, halting any north-south flow of refugees or weapons.

One Israeli soldier was killed in a firefight and up to 70 Palestinians died, officials said.

At least 512 Palestinians have been killed since Operation Cast Lead began Dec. 27 - more than 100 of them civilians. Three Israeli civilians and two soldiers have died.

As Hamas fired 30 rockets into southern Israel and nearly 1 million Israelis stayed near bomb shelters, witnesses said Israeli armored columns were advancing on Gaza City from the north, south and east.

In the city, families cowered in their apartments, the buildings shaking from explosions that sent booms and flashes ripping across the sky.

In northern Gaza, there were reports of heavy street fighting as Israeli forces captured positions in Beit Hanoun, Zeitoun and Beit Lahiya and advanced into the crowded alleyways of the Jabalya refugee camp just north of Gaza City. "Most of the resistance that we faced was from mortar shells - not from serious Hamas fighters face to face," a senior Israeli officer told reporters.

Another armed column moved into position near Rafah on Gaza's southern border with Egypt, leveling a disused airport.

Israeli Navy gunships pounded targets along the shoreline, and three senior Hamas commanders were reported killed when Israeli helicopter gunships targeted their vehicles with missiles.

Abu Obaida, a spokesman for Hamas' paramilitary Qassem Brigades, denied reports that 30 of the dead were Hamas fighters, branding it an example of "the enemy's psychological warfare."

Israel also denied Hamas claims it captured two soldiers. The reports could not be verified because journalists were denied access to Gaza despite an Israeli High Court order.

Israel confiscated all its soldiers' cell phones so they couldn't divulge their movements.

Israeli soldiers captured the Hamas-run Al Aqsa TV channel and broadcast messages telling Hamas leaders to surrender.

Other Arab TV channels broadcast gruesome photos of dead Palestinian children, fueling pro-Palestinian protests in New York; Athens; London; Kabul, Afghanistan, and the West Bank.

U.S. Secretary of State Rice canceled a visit to China to monitor the Mideast. Her designated successor, Hillary Clinton, kept a low profile.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas headed to New York to beg the UN Security Council for help. The United States is blocking a UN resolution calling for a ceasefire.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is set to arrive in Israel today to try to broker a truce.

Appearing on ABC, Peres rejected the idea, saying Israel won't cease fire while Hamas keeps firing rockets into Israel.

"We don't intend neither to occupy Gaza nor to crush Hamas, but to crush terror," Peres said.

Palestinian diplomat Saeb Erakat said military crackdowns never bring peace.

"It does not work in south Lebanon. It does not work in Iraq. It does not work in Afghanistan. It will not work in Gaza," he said, predicting instead the result will be "weakening moderates and strengthening extremists."

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