Israeli troops fought fierce gun battles with Hamas fighters yesterday, keeping military pressure on the Islamist group while avoiding all-out urban warfare that would complicate ongoing diplomatic efforts to end the Gaza war.
Medical officials said the Palestinian death toll in the offensive Israel began 17 days ago had risen past 900 and included at least 380 civilians. Israel said 13 Israelis — three civilians hit by rockets and 10 soldiers — have died.
An Israeli military spokesman said army reservists had been thrown into the campaign with the declared aim of ending cross-border rocket attacks from the Hamas-ruled territory to its south.
“Israel is a country that reacts vigorously when its citizens are fired upon, which is a good thing,” Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said yesterday. “That is something that Hamas now understands and that is how we are going to react in the future, if they so much as dare fire one missile at Israel.”
But Israeli forces were still holding back from a threatened third stage of their deadliest assault on Palestinian militants in decades — a push into the city of Gaza and other urban areas to add more punch to an air campaign and ground offensive.
The army said Hamas had been avoiding pitched battles against the advancing Israelis, resorting instead to guerrilla tactics as its fighters melt into crowded residential areas.
Livni, a candidate for prime minister in a Feb. 10 election, said the surprise bombing of the Gaza Strip at the start of operations on Dec. 27 and an armored thrust a week later had “restored Israel’s deterrence.”
Livni gave no indication in an interview with Army Radio when Israeli assaults might end.
Political sources said coalition partners Livni, chairman of the ruling Kadima party, and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, head of center-left Labour, wanted to halt the operation as soon as possible.
But the sources said outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who resigned as Kadima chief in September, disagreed and planned to present the issue in a Cabinet forum where he has support.
Israeli forces killed a Palestinian gunman and four civilians yesterday, medical workers said.
Israel said its aircraft carried out more than 10 attacks overnight, fewer than on many previous days.
They struck Hamas gunmen, weapons caches, a rocket launching position and a smuggling tunnel under Gaza’s border with Egypt, it said.
The Palestinian death toll since Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” began stood at 905, Gaza medical officials said. About 3,600 Palestinians have been wounded.
The health minister in Gaza, Bassem Naeem, told reporters that 42 percent of those killed — or about 380 — were women and children. Israel, which said it had killed “hundreds” of fighters, questioned civilian casualty figures from Gaza but did not offer its own estimate.
Egypt’s state news agency MENA said more talks in Cairo with a Hamas delegation on an Egyptian plan for a ceasefire were planned for later yesterday after “positive” discussions a day earlier.