Israeli forces battled Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip’s main city early yesterday and bombed the enclave’s southern border with Egypt as the death toll from the war on Hamas neared 1,000.
With the war now in its 19th day, witnesses said there were far fewer air strikes on Gaza City and other parts of the north than on the previous night, but that heavy fighting still continued.
“Tanks are shelling Palestinian fighters, who are responding with RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades],” an AFP correspondent said. “There is heavy machine-gun fire on both sides.”
Israeli special forces backed by tanks and air strikes had thrust ever deeper into Gaza’s City, advancing hundreds of meters into several neighborhoods in the south, witnesses said.
Palestinian medical sources said around 70 people were killed on Tuesday, taking the overall toll to around 975 Palestinians, with another 4,400 wounded.
Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians have been killed in combat or by rocket attacks since Dec. 27, when the Jewish state began its deadliest ever offensive on Gaza, ruled by the Islamist Hamas movement since mid-2007.
A Hamas delegation is currently in Cairo for talks on a Western-backed proposal drawn up by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to end the fighting.
A senior source in Cairo indicated Egypt was getting increasingly frustrated at Hamas’ response so far to its initiative, saying “they need to say ‘yes’, now, to our plan.”
Hillary Clinton, due to become US secretary of state in a week’s time, said US president-elect Barack Obama’s administration would make “every effort” to forge peace but ruled out talks with Hamas until it recognized Israel’s right to exist.
“You cannot negotiate with Hamas until it renounces violence, recognizes Israel and agrees to abide by past agreements,” she told a Senate confirmation hearing. “That is just for me an absolute.”
The UN secretary-general yesterday called for an immediate halt to the fighting in Gaza and said intense negotiations were needed as he began a weeklong trip to the region to end the crisis.
One possible solution to the crisis involves the use of Turkish troops as monitors, according to diplomats familiar with negotiations.
Meanwhile, the Lebanese government yesterday denounced the firing of three rockets from Lebanon into Israel, saying the incident undermined national unity and gave Israel an excuse to attack the country.
“Whoever is behind this attack is targeting the national consensus and all parties represented within the government,” Lebanese Information Minister Tarek Mitri said.
The incident is the second of its kind in a week. On Jan. 8, three rockets slammed into northern Israel from inside Lebanon, lightly wounding two Israelis in an attack in which the Hezbollah Shiite militia denied involvement.
Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has issued a 22-minute audio statement calling for jihad, or holy war, to stop Israeli “aggression” in Gaza, the US-based IntelCenter monitoring service reported yesterday.