Panic grips Gaza residents as Israel vows to press bloody offensive

Fighting rages in urban areas as death toll surpasses 555
The Daily Star, Agence France Presse (AFP), Jan. 06, 2009

GAZA CITY: Heavy fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas fighters broke out in a densely populated area of Gaza City on Monday evening, as at least 12 children became some of the latest victims of the Israeli onslaught. Israeli troops battled Hamas fighters in Gaza's main city for the first time Monday - after dozens died in a day of clashes - while the government fended off worldwide calls for a cease-fire.

Amid raging combat in Gaza City, and as the Palestinian death toll rose to at least 555, French and Russian presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Dmitry Medvedev both demanded a halt to the conflict. But Israeli ministers said the offensive would go on.

Large explosions and heavy gunfire rocked the Shejaiya neighborhood of eastern Gaza City as night fell. Israeli military sources confirmed there were heavy clashes.

Flares lit up the skies over the blacked-out neighborhood as attack helicopters could be seen hovering above.

Hamas said its fighters had shot missiles against seven tanks in the district. Its Islamic Jihad allies said several of its members were killed in the fighting.

At least 12 children were among 50 new bodies taken to Gaza hospitals after Israeli air missile and tank attacks Monday, medics said.

Israeli fighter-bombers carried out more than 30 air strikes during the day. The military said they hit a mosque where it claimed "arms were being stored, as well as houses containing arms caches and vehicles that were transporting rocket launchers and armed men."

Warships off the coast also bombarded targets to help the ground offensive launched on Saturday night.

The Israeli strikes killed at least 50 Palestinians on Monday, including 12 children, medics said.

A couple and their five children were killed by one naval shell, medics said. Three children were killed by a tank shell in Zeitun in the Gaza City suburbs, and two were killed in Shati by a naval strike, they said.

The UN estimates that civilians make up one quarter of the dead - including almost 100 children - that have been killed since Israel launched "Operation Cast Lead" on December 27. More than 2,700 have been wounded.

Three Israeli civilians and one soldier have been killed by rockets fired from Gaza since Israel's operation started. More than 30 rocket and missile attacks were reported on Monday. One hit a kindergarten which was closed because of the crisis.

Many streets in the Zeitun neighborhood were turned into a battle zone, as tanks fired shells and Hamas fighters responded with mortars and rockets.

In recent days, dozens of families living in Zeitun had fled the neighborhood to seek sanctuary in the homes of relatives and friends in central Gaza City.

"Please get us out of here," Umm Assad Hamudeh, who was attempting to leave on foot with her daughter and two grandchildren, yelled at a passing car.

Her home stands on the very edge of the neighborhood, next to a onetime used-car market, around which dozens of Israeli tanks had taken up position.

Columns of smoke billowed into the skies above the neighborhood from the spots hit by the tanks shells.

"We haven't slept in days, with the Israeli tanks mere meters from the house," she said. "The mortars and the fire didn't stop all night. We are going to our relatives' house in Al-Rimal" in central Gaza City.

Her daughter cried non-stop, carrying Fatima, aged just a few months in her arms.

"We left our house by a miracle," she sobbed. "We took the risk for the children who cried throughout the night."

Hamudeh's 5-year-old grandson pulled at his grandmother. "Let's get out of here. If not, they'll fire again and Fatima will cry even harder," he pleaded as they attempted to escape.

Weighed down by suitcases, Umm Mohammad Abu Khussa, 30, was also attempting to leave to stay with her in-laws.

"This is hell," she said. "Neither me nor the children slept during the night. The bullets even penetrated the walls of our house."

Wiping a tear, she added: "May God be with us. I thought I was going to die last night."

Most of the stores in the neighborhood were shuttered throughout the day. Youngsters sitting on the pavement debated how the Israeli offensive was going to unfold.

"If they attack with Apaches [assault helicopters] now, my body will be torn to shreds and pieces of me will be buried," one of them told his friend.

When several explosions shook the area, the boys scattered, running for shelter.

Abu Rami, 40, a wool cap on his head, seemed on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

"I tried to find a car to leave here with my family," he said. "My children lived through so much horror yesterday that they need to see a psychologist. I probably need one more than them," he added.

Also on Monday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that people wounded in the fighting in Gaza are dying because ambulances cannot reach them.

"The situation is extremely dangerous and the coordination of ambulance services is very complex because of the incessant attacks and military operations," ICRC spokeswoman Dorothea Krimitsas said in Geneva. "Wounded people have died while waiting for Palestinian Red Crescent ambulances," she added.

The ICRC was also concerned about water supplies in the densely populated coastal strip, which has been under an Israeli blockade for most of the past three years.

Krimitsas said two out of the 45 wells in the Gaza Strip were out of action after having been hit during Israeli air raids, while the pumps on eight others were no longer working because of power cuts.

"Half a million people - that's about one third of the population of the territory - are threatened with being completely deprived of water," she said.

Krimitsas said technicians needed to gain access to the electrical installations damaged during the fighting.

A team of four ICRC medical staff, including a surgeon, were allowed into the Gaza Strip from Israel on Monday after three days' delay, the relief agency said.

They are due to help staff at the territory's Shifa Hospital carry out complex operations on the wounded. The medical team also brought in tetanus vaccines from children and blood supplies, Krimitsas said.

Eighty truckloads of food and fuel were allowed to cross into Gaza on Monday after long delays while aid agencies organized transportation on the Gaza side.

Despite the ferocity of the Israeli attacks on Gaza and its residents, a top Hamas leader vowed to achieve "victory" against Israel on Monday.

"Victory is coming, God willing," former Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahhar said in his first television address since the launch of Israel's offensive against the enclave on December 27.

Zahhar insisted the group's armed wing, the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades, "has given the most beautiful performances during its confrontation with the army that the world thought invincible."

"We will defeat it, God willing," he added. "The painful tests of today will help us realize our national aspirations of tomorrow," he said, adding that Hamas was not renouncing its aim to "free all of Palestine."

The hard-liner, widely considered to be the most influential Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, lashed out against the United Nations and the West, accusing the international community of doing nothing to stop the devastating Israeli offensive.

He called for an "end to the aggression, the withdrawal of [Israeli invasion] forces and the lifting of the blockade" that Israel imposed on Gaza after Hamas won parliamentary elections in 2006.

"If that happens, we will be ready to discuss anything that can be in the interest of the Palestinian people," he said.

Also on Monday, Beirut-based Hamas official Osama Hamdan said the movement would send a delegation to Egypt on Monday for talks on the war in Gaza, the first such contact since the Israeli offensive was launched.

"We have received an invitation from Egypt and we're going to Cairo to listen to Egyptian officials and discuss with them suspended issues, notably the [permanent] reopening of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip," Hamdan said.

The delegation will include two members of Hamas' political leadership, Emad al-Alami and Mohammad Nasr, he said.

But as Israel intensified its air and ground operation, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni rejected any calls for a cease-fire.

"We are fighting with terror and we are not reaching an agreement with terror," she said, in reference to Hamas.

"Israel acted in a manner ... to change the equation that Hamas kept before the military operation ... that Hamas targets Israel whenever it likes and Israel shows restraint," Livni said after holding talks with senior EU diplomats.

"This is no longer going to be the equation in this region," she said. "When Israel is being targeted, Israel is going to retaliate."

Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Parliament the war against Gaza would go on.

"Gaza City is partially surrounded," Barak told MPs. "We have hit Hamas hard, but we have not yet reached all the goals that we have set for ourselves and the operation continues." - AFP, with The Daily Star

Protesters around the world maintain drumbeat of support for Palestinians

Popular condemnation of Israel's onslaught of the Gaza Strip continued to pour in from protests around the world on Monday, while Egyptian authorities cracked down on demonstrators rallying against the bloodshed.

Police in Cairo rounded up 50 members of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood trying to demonstrate against Israel's offensive, with around 400 Islamists arrested in recent days.

The Islamists were trying to stage a demonstration on a central Cairo square when riot police prevented them, a security official said. The group moved away to a less central part of the city and 50 were arrested.

Senior Brotherhood official Essam al-Aryan told AFP that around 400 Islamists remained in prison after being arrested since Israel launched its punishing offensive on the Gaza Strip on December 27.

Last year, dozens of Islamists were arrested trying to send relief convoys to the Gaza Strip, where Israel tightened a blockade after Hamas took power by force in 2007.

The Rafah crossing, which Egypt has refused to open permanently, is the only passage to the coastal strip not controlled by Israel.

The Brotherhood is banned by the government but fielded independent candidates in 2005 parliamentary elections, winning a fifth of seats despite fraud and police intervention.

Hundreds of Afghans staged fresh protests against Israel's deadly attacks on Monday, calling for the United Nations to intervene. Protests in the southern city of Kandahar and the eastern town of Mihtarlam followed demonstrations in other cities over the past days. The government in Kabul has condemned Israel and demanded a halt to the strikes that started December 27 and have now killed at least 555 Palestinians.

About 800 to 1,000 men in Kandahar shouted slogans against the Zionist state and its allies, and carried banners that read "Down with barbaric Israel" and "We defend the defenseless Muslims of Israel."

"We are here to show our solidarity with the oppressed Muslim Palestinians," demonstrator Hazrat Mohammad told AFP.

"We want the United Nations to immediately intervene and put an immediate halt to attacks on Palestinians," said another protester.

In Mihtarlam, a provincial capital about 90 kilometers east of Kabul, more than 200 demonstrators called for the UN and the Organization of the Islamic Conference to take a strong stand against the Israeli invasion.

"We strongly condemn the Israeli invasion of Gaza," protesters shouted, officials and witnesses told AFP.

The UN Security Council has thus far failed to agree on a response to Israel's assault.

Also on Monday, about 200 demonstrators burned an Israeli flag and staged a rally outside Israel's embassy in Bangkok to protest the military offensive in Gaza, witnesses said.

The demonstrators, most of them Thai Muslims dressed in black, held posters denouncing the incursion.

"In the name of Thais who love justice and peace, we would like to denounce the massacre, which has severely destroyed the dignity of human beings," the protesters said in a statement. "We call for Israel to stop its brutal actions and return rights, property, honor and dignity to Palestinians."

In Belgium, around 100 Palestinian supporters called for the European Union to take action.

"Europe where are you? You are watching while blood is spilt," the demonstrators chanted at the European Council building in Brussels, the main headquarters of the 27-member bloc.

Despite snow and biting cold, the supporters gathered with Palestinian flags and behind a large banner reading "Massacre in Gaza," with photographs of people hurt or killed in the offensive. - AFP, with The Daily Star

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