Sunday, 11 January 2009

Worst may be yet to come, Israel warns Gazans in leaflets as it pummels rocket launch sites

Sunday, January 11th 2009

BY MATTHEW KALMAN in Jerusalem and TRACY CONNOR in New York


Smoke billows following an air strike by the Israeli air force against a target in Gaza.

Renewed calls for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip were drowned out Saturday by heavy fighting between Israel and Hamas - and warnings of a "new phase" in the offensive.

As the battle entered its third week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas urged both sides to immediately end the violence or face a "waterfall of blood."

But Khaled Mashaal, a top Hamas leader, suggested there would never be peace in Gaza, calling Israel's attack on the Gaza Strip a "holocaust" in a fiery speech broadcast on the Arabic news channel Al Jazeera.

Israel and Hamas observed a three-hour lull in fighting Saturday so United Nations workers could deliver humanitarian aid. During the break, Israeli warplanes dropped thousands of leaflets on the Gaza Strip, informing residents that the offensive was far from over.

"In the near future, the [Israeli Defense Force] will continue to attack tunnels, arms caches and terror activities with greater intensity all across the strip," the flyers said in Arabic.

The ominous flyers instructed residents to stay away from targets during this "new phase in the war on terror."

Israeli tanks were heard moving near the central Gaza border early today as Israeli artillery pounded the area, indicating the possibility of a larger operation.

Hamas security officials said fierce battles were in progress in eastern Gaza City and northern Gaza. More than 800 people have been killed in Gaza since Israel began bombing on Dec. 27 to end Hamas' rocket launches across the border. Troops invaded a week later.

Hamas and its allied fighters claim 45 Israel soldiers have been killed - 10 of them Saturday - but Israel denied the report.

As Hamas fired 15 rockets Saturday, the Israeli army claimed it had hit 70 targets - including missile launchers, booby-trapped tunnels and "armed terror operatives."

One of the dead was Amir Mansi, described by Israel as the commander of Hamas' rocket-launching program in Gaza City.

"Mansi was spotted firing a rocket in the Jabel Rise area during a ground force operation today," an army spokesman said.

"The forces opened fire, killing Mansi and injuring two additional terror operatives."

International efforts to end the violence have been frustrated. Representatives of Hamas and Israel have gone to Egypt for talks.

After a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Abbas called for them to accept a truce.

"If any party does not accept it [the truce], regrettably it will be the one bearing the responsibility," he said.

"And if Israel doesn't want to accept, it will take the responsibility of perpetuating a waterfall of blood."

Hamas, which seized control of Gaza from Abbas' Fatah Party 18 months ago, had rejected a French-Egyptian plan for peace - but seemed to crack open the door Saturday.

The "priority is the withdrawal of Israel from Gaza and the removal of the siege" - conditions already rejected by Israel, said Ayman Taha, a member of the Hamas delegation.

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