Israel Assaults Hamas In Gaza
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***UPDATE*** 12/29 11:45PM Israel continued to pound Hamas targets in Gaza for a fourth straight day:
Israeli warplanes killed 10 Palestinians on Tuesday in attacks that targeted Hamas government buildings and other symbols of the Islamist group on the fourth day of the fiercest air offensive in Gaza in decades.
Israeli missiles flattened five ministerial buildings and a structure belonging to the Islamic University in Gaza City, witnesses said.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has declared "all-out war against Hamas."
Israel's stated goal is to cripple Hamas' ability to launch rockets at Israeli towns, which means that a ground invasion is becoming more likely as it becomes clear that airstrikes alone cannot finish the job. The Israeli paper Haaretz concludes that this may be just what Hamas wants.
In preparation for a possible Israeli infantry invasion, Hamas announced that it is recruiting 1,000 "reservists" to foil any such attack.
The death toll from the attacks on Gaza continues to rise, reaching 345 dead with more than 1,400 injured.
***UPDATE*** 12/29 7:24PM Hamas has retaliated against Israel is with a deadly barrage of rockets that reached deep into Israel. With this evidence that airstrikes alone have not been able to stop all Hamas rocket launches, Israel is hinting that it will broaden it's assault with a ground invasion:
Israel hinted it was ready to broaden its assault on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip with a ground operation after three days of air raids failed to bring an end to cross-border rocket attacks.
"If the criminal, intentional rocket fire at the citizens of Israel is not stopped immediately, Israel will use all legal means at its disposal to stop the illegal and aggressive acts against civilians," Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in an e- mailed statement from his office.
***UPDATE*** 12/29 6:23PM Iran, whose leadership has condemned Israel in the strongest terms over their airstrikes against Hamas, is beginning to register volunteers to fight against Israel in the Gaza strip. Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei earlier issued a religious decree declaring it the duty of Muslims around the world to fight back against Israel in any way:
A group of Iranian hard-line clerics is signing up volunteers to fight in the Gaza Strip in response to Israel's air strikes that have killed at least 300 Palestinians, a news agency reported on Monday.
"From Monday the Combatant Clergy Society has activated its website www.rohaniatmobarez.com for a week to register volunteers to fight against the Zionist regime (Israel) in either the military, financial or propaganda fields," the semi-official Fars news agency said.
***UPDATE*** 12/28 8:58PM The White House blamed Hamas for the new round of violence in the Mideast, reports the AP:
The Bush administration has called again for a "sustainable cease-fire" in the Mideast and demands that Hamas stop its attacks on Israel...
[Spokesman Gordon] Johndroe blamed the militant Hamas organization for the latest wave in violence, saying that it broke a six-month cease-fire agreement. He said that Hamas has "shown its true colors as a terrorist organization."
***UPDATE*** 12/28 8:58PM The Jerusalem Post is reporting that Israeli forces on Monday morning struck key centers in Gaza City, including Islamic University, and that Hamas may be considering a dramatic response, such as the kidnapping of a soldier:
Early Monday, IAF aircraft bombed the Islamic University and government compound in Gaza City, centers of Hamas power. Witnesses saw fire and smoke at the university, counting six separate air strikes there just after midnight.
Forces were placed on high alert across the country as Military Intelligence warned of a Hamas "showcase" terror attack - including the possible abduction of a soldier - to avenge the massive and unprecedented bombardment of Gaza and the killing of close to 300 Palestinians since Saturday.
Click through this slideshow documenting the third day of the Gaza crisis:
***UPDATE*** 12/28 7:30PM Israeli newspaper Haaretz is reporting that Hamas threatened to assassinate senior Israeli officials, including foreign minister Tzipi Livni and defense minister Ehud Barak, as well as Palestinian Authority and Egyptian officials:
Hamas on Sunday threatened to respond to an ongoing Israel Defense Forces assault on the Gaza Strip by assassinating senior Israeli officials. Senior Hamas official Fatah Hamad specifically threatened Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
He also threatened that Hamas would go after senior Palestinian Authority officials in the West Bank, as well as "those in the Arab world who have conspired against us," - an apparent reference to Egypt.
***UPDATE*** 12/28 5:42PM The Israeli Defense Forces released aerial photos of the Hamas facilities targeted by Israel's fighter pilots, as reported by HuffPost blogger and Israeli journalist Karin Kloosterman.
***UPDATE*** 12/28 1:42PM According to the Washington Post, there are growing signs that Israel is preparing for an extended Gaza campaign, though it's unclear whether that will involve a ground invasion. Israel has stated the offensive will end when Hamas stops any rocket fire towards Israel.
***UPDATE*** 12/28 1:02PM Gazans seeking to escape the chaos of the airstrikes have breached the border with Egypt, prompting Egyptian forces to open fire:
Gaza residents on Sunday breached the border fence with Egypt in several places and hundreds have crossed the frontier prompting Egyptian border guards to open fire, said officials and witnesses on both sides of the border...
...An Egyptian security official said there were at least five breaches along the 9 mile (14 kilometer) border and hundreds of Palestinian residents were pouring in.
At least 300 Egyptian border guards have been rushed to the area to reseal the border, the official added on condition on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Israel's airstrikes have widened in scope. New targets include the myriad tunnels between Gaza and Egypt that Hamas militants use to smuggle in weapons. Israel has reportedly bombed over 40 of them already.
Syria, reflecting the outrage of the Arab world, has broken off indirect peace talks with Israel.
***UPDATE*** 12/28 8:55AM Israel has said it will call up 6,500 reservists to support what is the largest offensive in the Gaza strip in decades. These troops will be deployed on the home front as well as to reinforce those on the front lines in Gaza.
Israel has also begun deploying tanks along the Gaza border, which could pave the way for a possible ground invasion:
The Israel Defense Forces on early Sunday began mobilizing tanks and reinforcing ground troops near the Gaza border, in preparation for a possible ground incursion:
Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Sky News that he would not rule out widening the offensive in the Gaza Strip to include a ground invasion...
...Asked whether Israel would follow up the air strikes with a ground offensive, Barak said, "If boots on the ground will be needed, they will be there."
"Our intention is to totally change the rules of the game," he said.
Protests against Israel broke out across the Middle East as Israel's adversaries from Lebanon to Iran called for an end to the airstrikes against Hamas.
The AP has more on the second day of airstrikes against Gaza, which has not stopped Hamas from continuing to launch rockets against Israeli towns:
Israeli warplanes pressing one of Israel's deadliest assaults ever on Palestinian militants dropped bombs and missiles on a top security installation and dozens of other targets across Hamas-ruled Gaza on Sunday.
Infantry and armored units headed to the Gaza border for a possible ground invasion, as the Israeli Cabinet authorized a callup of thousands of reserve soldiers. Some 280 Palestinians died in the first 24 hours of the campaign against Gaza rocket squads -- most of them Hamas police.
Unbowed by 250 Israeli airstrikes, militants fired dozens of rockets and mortars at border communities Sunday. Two rockets struck close to the largest city in southern Israel, Ashdod, some 38 kilometers (23 miles) from Gaza, reaching deeper into Israel than ever before. The targeting of Ashdod confirmed Israel's concern that militants are capable of putting major cities within rocket range. No serious injuries were reported in any of the attacks Sunday.
The Palestinians' moderate President Mahmoud Abbas, a fierce rival of Hamas' who controls only the West Bank and has little influence in Gaza, urged the Islamic militant group to renew a truce with Israel that collapsed last week.
In New York, the U.N. Security Council expressed serious concern about the escalating situation in Gaza and called on Israel and the Palestinians to immediately halt all violence and military activities. The U.N.'s most powerful body called for a new cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, and for opening border crossings into Gaza to enable humanitarian supplies to reach the territory.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak allowed limited supplies of fuel and medicine into Gaza on Sunday.
Many of Israel's Western allies urged restraint on both sides, though the U.S. blamed Hamas for the fighting.
***UPDATE*** 11:01PM Israel continued its airstrikes against Hamas in Gaza for a second day:
Israel launched air strikes on Gaza for a second successive day on Sunday, piling pressure on Hamas after 229 people were killed in one of the bloodiest 24 hours for Palestinians in 60 years of conflict with the Jewish state.
"Palestine has never seen an uglier massacre," said Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and his Islamist group, which has controlled the coastal territory since June 2007, vowed revenge including suicide bombings in Israel's "cafes and streets."
...The Jewish state said it was responding to "intolerable" almost daily rocket and mortar fire by Gaza militants that intensified after Hamas ended a six-month ceasefire a week ago.
The U.S. has called on Hamas to cease its rocket attacks against Israel, which broke a cease-fire that had lasted for several months:
The U.S. on Saturday blamed the militant group Hamas for breaking a cease-fire and attacking Israel, which retaliated with strikes of its own during what became the single bloodiest day of fighting in years.
The White House called for the cease-fire to be restored, yet there were few indications that the violence, which has left more than 200 people dead and nearly another 400 wounded, was waning. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned that the operation in Gaza would widen if necessary.
It was "completely unacceptable" for Hamas, which controls Gaza, to launch attacks on Israel after a truce lasting several months, said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
***UPDATE*** 10:45PM The Israeli newspaper Haaretz is reporting that at least three senior Hamas officers were killed during the airstrikes:
The 230 Palestinians killed in the Israeli air raid on Gaza Saturday included three senior officers: Tawfik Jabber, the commander of Hamas' police force in Gaza; his adjutant, Ismail al-Ja'abri, commander of the defense and security directorate; and Abu-Ahmad Ashur, Hamas' Gaza central district governor.
Haaretz also sets the number of wounded at 780, a number that is overwhelming hospitals.
While the AP is skeptical about Israel's ability to topple Hamas through airstrikes alone, there are signs that Hamas has been dealt a very serious blow under Israel's relentless onslaught:
For the first time, Israel attacked not just militants ordering or taking part in operations but members of the security forces and any buildings connected with them.
Every known police station, arms store and headquarters building in Gaza, which has been ruled by Hamas since June 2007, was attacked, regardless of whether they were occupied. A passing out ceremony for new police officers was struck, killing around 40 cadets.
***UPDATE*** 9:46PM ABC News reports that Obama has spoken by phone with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about the ongoing situation in Gaza.
***UPDATE*** 7:25PM Al-Jazeera reports that Hamas has called for a third intifada with a return to suicide missions:
Khaled Meshaal, the political leader of Hamas, has called for Palestinians to wage a new intifada against Israel, including a return to suicide missions.
In an interview on Al Jazeera, Meshaal said: "We called for a military intifada against the enemy. Resistance will continue through suicide missions."
***UPDATE*** 7:07PM In what would be a serious escalation of the conflict, the Israeli Defense Forces are preparing for a possible ground incursion of the Gaza strip:
The IDF has also begun mobilizing tanks and reinforcement infantry troops to the Gaza region in the event a ground incursion is ordered. In an interview with the British SKY network, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that ground forces would indeed enter the Strip if the move was deemed necessary by Jerusalem.
Barak did not declare outright that there would be a ground offensive, but said that he could not presume to guess what Hamas' next move would be and therefore was preparing the military for any contingency.
Israel has vowed to continue the airstrikes through the night, with Barak saying "this will not be a short operation":
Barak said the Israeli attacks would continue as long as necessary until Hamas militants were ready to "change their behavior."
"This will not be a short operation. The war on terrorism is an ongoing one, and we will have to stand firm in order to change the situation in the south," Barak said Saturday, one day after an Egypt-brokered cease-fire between Hamas and Israel expired.
It's unclear how effective these airstrikes will be in dismantling Hamas. The terrorist group is entrenched pretty deeply in Gaza and Israel learned how difficult it can be to dismantle groups like Hamas from the air when they failed to accomplish the same goal against Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel was forced to send troops into that country. The AP is skeptical that Hamas can be toppled from the air:
Gaza's deeply entrenched Hamas rulers won't be easily toppled, even by Israel's unprecedented bombings Saturday that killed more than 200 people, most of them men in Hamas uniform.
For now, Israel's defense minister says he's striving for a lesser, temporary objective _ to deliver such a punishing blow to Hamas that the Islamic militants will halt rocket attacks on Israel.
But Israel's offensive, launched just six weeks before a general election in the Jewish state, is fraught with risks. The horrific TV images of dead and wounded Gazans are inflaming Arab public opinion, embarrassing moderate Arab regimes and weakening Hamas' rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Israel also risks opening new fronts, including unrest that could destabilize the Abbas-ruled West Bank and possible rocket attacks by Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas on northern Israel.
Hezbollah already proved its military prowess in its 2006 war with Israel, firing thousands of rockets. That war erupted while Israel was fighting in Gaza. Meanwhile, stone-throwing protests erupted across the West Bank on Saturday.
Far from being cowed, Hamas leaders sounded defiant Saturday, and Hamas militants fired dozens of rockets into Israel. One Israeli was killed Saturday, and mounting Israeli casualties could turn Israeli public opinion against the offensive.
EARLIER: From AP GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israeli warplanes rained more than 100 tons of bombs on security installations in Hamas-ruled Gaza on Saturday, killing at least 230 people in one of the bloodiest days in decades of the mideast conflict. The government said the open-ended campaign was aimed at stopping rocket and mortar attacks that have traumatized southern Israel.
More than 400 people were also wounded. Most of the casualties were security forces, but Palestinian officials said at least 15 civilians were among the dead.
The unprecedented assault sparked protests and condemnations throughout the Arab world, and many of Israel's Western allies urged restraint, though the U.S. blamed Hamas for the fighting.
But there was no end in sight. Israel warned it might go after Hamas' leaders, and militants kept pelting Israel with rockets _ killing at least one Israeli and wounding six.
Hundreds of Israeli infantry and armored corps troops headed for the Gaza border in preparation for a possible ground invasion, military officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity under army guidelines.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the goal was "to bring about a fundamental improvement in the security situation of the residents of the southern part of the country." He added, "It could take some time."
The Israeli airstrikes caused widespread panic and confusion, and black plumes of smoke billowed above the territory, ruled by the Islamic militant Hamas for the past 18 months. Some of the Israeli missiles struck in densely populated areas as students were leaving school, and women rushed into the streets frantically looking for their children.
"My son is gone, my son is gone," wailed Said Masri, a 57-year-old shopkeeper, as he sat in the middle of a Gaza City street, slapping his face and covering his head with dust from a bombed-out security compound nearby.
He said he had sent his 9-year-old son out to purchase cigarettes minutes before the airstrikes began and could not find him. "May I burn like the cigarettes, may Israel burn," Masri moaned.
Militants often operate against Israel from civilian areas. Late Saturday, thousands of Gazans received Arabic-language cell-phone messages from the Israeli military, urging them to leave homes where militants might have stashed weapons.
The offensive began eight days after a six-month truce between Israel and the militants expired. The Israeli army says Palestinian militants have fired some 300 rockets and mortars at Israeli targets over the past week, and 10 times that number over the past year.
"There is a time for calm and there is a time for fighting, and now is the time for fighting," said Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, vowing to expand the operation if necessary.
In Gaza City's main security compound, bodies of more than a dozen uniformed Hamas police lay on the ground. Civilians rushed wounded people in cars and vans to hospitals because there weren't enough ambulances to transport all the dead and wounded.
"There are heads without bodies .... There's blood in the corridors. People are weeping, women are crying, doctors are shouting, " said nurse Ahmed Abdel Salaam from Shifa Hospital, Gaza's main treatment center.
Military officials said aircraft released more than 100 tons of bombs in the first nine hours of fighting, focusing initially on militant training camps, rocket-manufacturing facilities and weapons warehouses that had been identified in advance.
A second wave was directed at squads who fired about 180 rockets and mortars at Israeli border communities. In an attack early Sunday, Palestinians said Israeli aircraft bombed a mosque near Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, destroying it.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Hamas' political leaders could soon be targeted. ""Hamas is a terrorist organization and nobody is immune," she declared.
The campaign was launched six weeks before national elections. Livni and Barak hope to succeed Ehud Olmert as prime minister, and the outgoing government has faced pressure to take tough action.
Gaza's political leaders, who have been targeted in the past, went into hiding earlier this week. In a speech broadcast on local Gaza television, Hamas' prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, declared his movement would not be cowed.
"We are stronger, and more determined, and have more will, and we will hold onto our rights even more than before," Haniyeh said. It was not clear where he spoke.
In Damascus, Syria, Hamas' top leader, Khaled Mashaal, called on Palestinians to rekindle their fight against Israel. "This is the time for a third uprising," he said.
Israel withdrew its troops and settlers in 2005 after crushing the second Palestinian uprising, but it has maintained control over the territory's border crossings.
Despite the overwhelming show of force, it was not clear the offensive would halt the rocket fire. Past operations have never achieved that goal.
Late Saturday, Gaza health official Dr. Moaiya Hassanain said 230 Palestinians were killed and more than 400 were wounded.
The lone fatality in Israel was in the town of Netivot, where a rocket killed an Israeli man. Six other people were wounded, rescue services said.
Netivot only recently become a target, and dozens of stunned residents, some weeping, gathered at the house that took the deadly rocket hit. A hole gaped in one of the walls, which was pocked with shrapnel marks.
"We need to finish this once and for all and strike back hard," said next-door neighbor Avraham Chen-Chatam, 57.
Streets were nearly empty in Sderot, the Israeli border town pummeled hardest by rockets. But dozens of people congregated on a hilltop to watch the Israeli aerial attacks.
The TV images of dead and wounded Gazans inflamed Arab public opinion, and protests erupted in Arab Israeli villages, the West Bank and elsewhere in the Arab world.
The campaign embarrassed moderate Arab regimes that have encouraged Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and weakened Hamas' rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has ruled only the West Bank since Hamas violently seized control of Gaza in June 2007.
Abbas condemned the attacks, but fearing violence could spiral out of control, his forces also broke up protests in the West Bank.
The offensive also risked opening new fronts, including unrest that could destabilize the West Bank and ignite possible rocket attacks by Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas on northern Israel.
Britain, the EU, the Vatican, the U.N. secretary-general and special Mideast envoy Tony Blair all called for an immediate restoration of calm. The Arab League scheduled an emergency meeting Wednesday to discuss the situation.
But the U.S., Israel's closest ally, blamed Hamas. "These people are nothing but thugs, so Israel is going to defend its people against terrorists like Hamas that indiscriminately kill their own people," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
AP correspondent Aron Heller contributed to this report from Netivot, Israel. Amy Teibel reported from Jerusalem.