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Israel tightens grip on Gaza
Published on 6 Jan. 2009 12:30 AM IST
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Israeli troops tightened their military grip on Gaza with new air strikes and ground battles on Monday while Europe led a diplomatic offensive to secure a ceasefire. Amid raging battles around the main city, the senior Hamas leader in Gaza promised “victory is coming”. But Israel’s defence minister said Hamas has been hit “hard” and insisted there would be no letup in the mission to halt militant rocket attacks despite the deaths of more than 520 Palestinians. Thousands of ground troops intensified Israel’s move into the Palestinian enclave of 1.5 million people, battling Hamas fighters in the east of the territory as they surrounded Gaza City on land and sea. Israeli jets carried out more than 30 air strikes. The military said they hit a mosque in the northern town of Jabaliya “where arms were being stored, as well as houses containing arms caches and vehicles that were transporting rocket launchers and armed men.” Naval ships off the coast also bombarded targets to help the ground offensive launched on Saturday night. The Israeli strikes killed another 14 Palestinians, including five children, on Monday, medics said. Three children were killed by a tank shell in Zeitun and two were killed in Shati by a naval strike, according to the head of Gaza medical emergency services Moawiya Hassanein. At least 525 Palestinians -- including at least 90 children -- have been killed since Israel launched Operation Cast Lead on December 27. Some 2,500 have been wounded. Israel says dozens of Hamas fighters have been killed while one Israeli soldier has been reported dead and 55 wounded since Saturday. Defence minister Ehud Barak told parliament the Hamas war 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,” he said. “We are doing everything that a state must do to protect its citizens. We want that the attacks against our citizens and our soldiers stop.” Three civilians and one soldier have been killed by rockets fired from Gaza since Israel’s operation started. More than 20 rocket and missile attacks were reported on Monday. Hamas remained defiant. “Victory is coming, God willing,” the movement’s senior leader in Gaza, Mahmud Zahar, said in a television address. Dressed in black, Zahar insisted the group’s armed wing, the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades, had “given the most beautiful performances during its confrontation with the army that the world thought invincible.” Israel faces intense international pressure to agree a ceasefire and ease the suffering of the Gaza population which has no power or water supplies and endures a daily struggle to get food, according to aid agencies. Israel agreed to let food and fuel into Gaza but scores of trucks were stuck at the border as the military said no one turned up to receive the supplies. Aid agencies said they were scrambling to organise a convoy on the Palestinian side where many people fear to venture out during the Israeli raids. French President Nicolas Sarkozy was to hold talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on ways to reach a ceasefire. An EU ministerial delegation and a Russian envoy were also in the region. US secretary of state Condoleeza Rice called off a trip to China because of the Gaza crisis. Sarkozy was to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah, after first meeting with Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak, in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg, whose country holds the EU presidency, headed another delegation to the Middle East, while Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s Middle East envoy, Alexander Saltanov, held talks with Abbas. The European Union and Russia are both part of the Middle East diplomatic Quartet, along with the United Nations and the United States. Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said he had a plan aiming to at least suspend the Gaza fighting which he had already discussed with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He said he would also outline it to US President George W Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on Sunday that he would be working with the key players on ways to end the violence. The Israeli offensive has sparked spiralling anger in the Muslim world and protests across the globe.

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