Israel warned yesterday it could send ground troops into Gaza as its warplanes again pounded Hamas targets in the enclave where more than 280 Palestinians have been killed in less than two days.
Hamas responded by firing rockets the deepest yet into Israel, with one hitting without causing casualties not far from Ashdod, home to Israel’s second-largest port, medics said.
In the latest plea for the violence to end, Pope Benedict XVI implored the international community to do “all it can to help the Israelis and Palestinians on this dead-end road ... and not to give in to the perverse logic of confrontation and violence but to favor the path of dialogue and negotiations.”
But Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak vowed to expand the mammoth bombing campaign, unleashed in retaliation for ongoing militant rocket fire.
“The IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] will expand and deepen its operations in Gaza as much as necessary,” he told reporters.
“If it’s necessary to deploy ground forces to defend our citizens, we will do so,” his spokesman quoted him as saying earlier.
The Cabinet gave the green light to call up 6,500 reserve soldiers, a senior official told reporters after the meeting.
Israeli television said the army had begun concentrating ground forces near the tiny Palestinian enclave, where medics said at least 282 people had been killed since early on Saturday.
Warplanes continued to pound the territory of 1.5 million, where many streets were deserted and schools and shops stayed shut as hundreds of funerals were held.
Businesses in the occupied West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem observed a strike in protest at the onslaught.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the campaign was launched “in order to regain a normal life for the citizens in the south who have suffered for many years from incessant rocket, mortar and terror attacks.”
Israel is “aiming to change the situation on the ground whereby in the future there will be a tranquil border between Israel and Gaza,” Israeli Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog said.
But Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian movement branded a terror group by Israel and the West, remained defiant.
Its exiled leader Khaled Meshaal called in Damascus for a new Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against Israel and promised more suicide attacks.
The Israeli bombardment, one of the bloodiest 24-hour periods in the 60-year Israeli-Palestinian conflict and one of the largest military operations in Gaza since Israel captured it in the 1967 war, sparked huge international concern.
In New York, the UN Security Council called for an “immediate halt to all violence” and on the parties “to stop immediately all military activities,” without mentioning Israel or Hamas by name.
In Rome, the pope said that “the terrestrial homeland of Jesus cannot continue to be the witness of such bloodshed which is repeated ad infinitum.”
Egypt, which had brokered a six-month Israel-Hamas truce that expired on Dec. 19, said it was trying to negotiate a new ceasefire.
But a senior government official said that “we have our goals and our timetable and we don’t seek mediation. We haven’t received any offer of mediation.”