Israeli forces pounded Gaza Strip houses, mosques and tunnels yesterday from the air, land and sea, killing at least seven children and six other civilians as they consolidated a bruising offensive against Palestinian militants.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the offensive would continue until Israel achieved its objective — “peace and tranquility” for residents of southern Israel who continued to be bombarded by Palestinian rocket and mortar fire.
A stream of diplomats and world leaders hoping to end the violence headed for the region to meet with Israeli leaders as world outrage over ballooning Palestinian casualties mounted.
Gaza health officials reported 524 dead and nearly 2,000 wounded since Israel embarked upon its military campaign against Gaza’s Islamic Hamas rulers on Dec. 27. At least 200 civilians were among the dead.
Israeli forces seized sparsely populated areas in northern Gaza on Sunday and by yesterday morning were dug in on the edges of Gaza City. Further movement into the heart of the built-up areas would mean deadly urban warfare, replete with house-to-house fighting, sniper fire and booby traps, in crowded streets and alleyways familiar to Hamas’ 20,000 fighters.
A total of 13 civilians died in the various attacks across Gaza yesterday morning, Gaza health official Moaiya Hassanain said.
Israeli troops took over three six-floor buildings on the outskirts of Gaza City, taking up rooftop positions after locking residents in rooms and taking away their cellphones, a neighbor said, quoting a relative in one of the buildings before his phone was taken.
“The army is there, firing in all directions,” said Mohammed Salmai, a 29-year-old truck driver. “All we can do is take clothes to each other to keep ourselves warm and pray to God that if we die, someone will find our bodies under the rubble.”
Civilian casualties have spiked since Israel launched a ground offensive on Saturday, following a week of punishing air strikes. Of about 80 Palestinians killed during the ground operation, at least 70 were civilians, Hassanain said.
The Israeli military said aircraft carried out 30 sorties overnight, striking a mosque in Jebaliya that contained a large store of weapons and an underground arms bunker in the Gaza City area that touched off secondary explosions and collapsed smuggling tunnels.
Aircraft also hit weapons smuggling tunnels in southern Gaza, near the Egyptian border, and went after the houses of Hamas members where weapons were stored, the military said. A rocket launcher and suspected anti-aircraft missile launcher were also targeted, it said.
Militants, defying the attacks, fired more than a dozen rockets at Israel early yesterday, police said. No injuries were reported.
Meanwhile, French President Nicolas Sarkozy was expected to arrive in the region yesterday in a fresh diplomatic push for a truce.
Sarkozy, who unsuccessfully proposed a two-day truce before the land invasion began, was due to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
An EU delegation including foreign policy chief Javier Solana was also expected to meet Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.