Israel rejected mounting international pressure to suspend its devastating air offensive against Palestinian militants, whose rocket barrages are striking ominously close to the Israeli heartland, sending warplanes yesterday to demolish smuggling tunnels that are the lifeline of Gaza's Islamic Hamas rulers.
The diplomatic action has been set in motion by the scale of destruction in Gaza since Israel unleashed its campaign on Saturday, and a casualty toll that Gaza officials now put at 390 dead and some 1,600 wounded.
Hamas says some 200 uniformed members of Hamas security forces have been killed, and the UN says at least 60 Palestinian civilians have died. Four Israelis have been killed by militant rocket fire, including three civilians.
The chief of Israel's internal security services, Yuval Diskin, told Cabinet ministers yesterday that Hamas' ability to rule had been “badly impaired.” Weapons development facilities have been “completely wiped out,” and the network of smuggling tunnels has been badly damaged, a participant in the meeting quoted Diskin as saying.
He spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed to the media.
The military strike has touched off protests across the Islamic world. In Iran yesterday, fundamentalist students asked their government to authorize volunteer suicide bombers to attack Israel.
The Tehran government had no immediate response.
On Tuesday, France urged Israel to halt its operation for 48 hours. Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert discussed the idea with his defense and foreign ministers overnight, but the trio decided to pursue the punishing aerial campaign.
“Giving Hamas a respite just to regroup, rearm is a mistake,” Olmert spokesman Mark Regev said. “The pressure on the Hamas military machine must continue.”
Calls for an immediate ceasefire have also come from the US, the EU, the UN and Russia. US President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice personally called leaders in the Middle East on Tuesday to press for a durable solution.
Underlying the Israeli decision to keep fighting are the mightier weapons that Hamas has smuggled into Gaza through underground tunnels along the border with Egypt. If previously militants had relied on crude homemade rockets that could fly just 18km to terrorize Israeli border communities, they are now firing industrial-grade weapons that have dramatically expanded their range and put more than one-tenth of Israel's population in their sights.
More than two dozens rockets and mortar shells were fired by mid-day yesterday, including five that hit in and around the major southern Israeli city of Beersheba, 35km from Gaza. One hit an empty school.
Another landed in a small farming community about 32km southeast of Tel Aviv. No serious casualties were reported.