Israeli forces edged into the Gaza Strip’s most populous area yesterday, killing at least 27 Palestinians in an offensive stepped up in defiance of international calls for a ceasefire.
Medical officials said about half of the Palestinian dead in the latest fighting in the Hamas-ruled territory were civilians.
“Israel is getting close to achieving the goals it set for itself,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his Cabinet in Jerusalem, giving no timeframe for an end to the 16-day-long war.
“But patience, determination and effort are still needed to realize these goals in a manner that will change the security situation in the south,” Olmert said, referring to Hamas rocket attacks that continue to hit Israeli towns.
Two of Israel’s top defense officials said Hamas had been badly hurt by the offensive, but that the group would fight on.
Military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin told the Cabinet that the group’s ability to fight had been damaged by the devastating assault. He said Hamas was suffering from ammunition shortages and has been hard hit by the deaths of senior militants.
But Yadlin said the group “is not expected to raise a white flag.”
Shin Bet security service chief Yuval Diskin said many Gazans are furious with Hamas for “bringing a disaster on Gaza.”
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said his ruling Islamist group would not consider a ceasefire until Israel ended its air, sea and ground assault and lifted a Gaza blockade. A Hamas delegation held talks in Cairo on an Egyptian truce plan.
Backed by helicopter gunships, Israeli troops and tanks pushed into eastern and southern parts of the city of Gaza, confronting Hamas militants who fired anti-armor missiles and mortar bombs.
The Palestinian death toll since Israel’s offensive began on Dec. 17 stands at 869, many of them civilians, Gaza medical officials said. Thirteen Israelis — three civilians hit by rocket fire and 10 soldiers — have been killed, official Israeli figures showed.
In Washington, US president-elect Barack Obama said in broadcast remarks he would begin the search for Middle East peace immediately on becoming president on Jan. 20 and the Gaza conflict had only underscored his determination to become involved as early as possible.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has called on Israel to stop using white phosphorus munitions in densely populated areas in the Gaza Strip, saying the chemical could severely burn people and set structures and fields on fire.
The group said white phosphorus was apparently being used to create smoke screens, describing this as “a permissible use in principle under international law.”
But it also noted media photos of air-bursting white phosphorus projectiles, which it said can spread burning wafers over an area between 125m and 250m in diameter, depending on the altitude of the explosion.
Israel said it only uses weapons permitted by international law.
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