Israel hit the Gaza Strip with more air strikes yesterday and warned its military action could last weeks, while its Islamist enemy Hamas vowed to keep up rocket attacks on Israeli cities.
Both sides rejected any notion of a ceasefire soon, three days after Israeli leaders launched bombing raids with the declared aim of halting rocket salvoes from the Hamas-controlled coastal enclave.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel, which is blockading Gaza, was gathering ground forces at the frontier and would expand its operation “as much as is necessary” to stop the rocket fire and “deal a heavy blow to Hamas.”
Israeli warplanes pressed on for the fourth day with attacks on Hamas targets, killing 12 Palestinians. Several rockets fired from Gaza hit Israel, a day after three Israelis were killed in cross-border salvoes.
Medical officials put Palestinian casualties since Saturday at 348 dead with more than 800 wounded. A UN agency said at least 62 of the dead were civilians. In all, four Israelis have been killed since the operation began.
“We are living in horror, we and our children. The situation is not just bad, it is tragic,” said Gaza resident Abu Fares, standing outside his home, near the rubble of a building that was bombed and destroyed overnight.
“We are scared ... that we can die at any moment,” said 11-year-old Mohammed Ayyad, who lives near a government compound blasted in the overnight raids.
Reports quoted Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as saying the Gaza operation, launched by his centrist government six weeks before a national election that opinion polls predict the right-wing Likud party will win, was in “the first of a several stages.”
The UN has called for an immediate truce. But Israeli Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit said “there is no room for a ceasefire” with Hamas until the threat of rocket fire had been removed.
“The Israeli army must not stop the operation before breaking the will of the Palestinians, of Hamas, to continue to fire at Israel,” he told Israel Radio.
The Israeli military “has made preparations for long weeks of action,” added Matan Vilnai, a deputy defense minister, in broadcast remarks.
Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas official, countered: “We are not begging for calm and there is no room to talk about calm amid the continued aggression and siege.”
Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah faction in fighting in June last year. It has rejected international demands to recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept existing interim peace deals.
In Beit Hanoun, in the northern Gaza Strip, two sisters were killed in an air raid as they were taking out the trash near their home, medical workers said. The area has been a launching ground for cross-border rocket attacks.
Later, a security man was killed in a strike on a headquarters in Khan Yunis and Israeli missiles flattened five ministerial buildings and a structure belonging to the Islamic University in Gaza City.