Israel Destroys Hamas Homes, Flattens Gaza Mosque (PHOTOS)

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Israel bombed a mosque it said was used to store weapons and destroyed the homes of more than a dozen Hamas operatives Friday, but under international pressure, the government allowed hundreds of Palestinians with foreign passports to leave besieged Gaza.

Israel has been building up artillery, armor and infantry on Gaza's border in an indication the week-old air assault on Gaza's Hamas rulers could soon expand with a ground incursion.

At the same time, international calls for a cease-fire have been growing, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy is expected in the region next week to push for a halt to the violence. Israel has so far been cool to a truce, and in a setback for diplomatic efforts, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she had no plans to come to the region.

"Hamas has held the people of Gaza hostage ever since their illegal coup against the forces of President Mahmoud Abbas," she said. Hamas seized control of Gaza from Abbas' Fatah forces in 2007 and Abbas set up a rival government in the West Bank.

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Rice charged Hamas "has used Gaza as a launching pad" for firing rockets into the Jewish state and that, as a result, the Palestinians in Gaza have had "a very bad daily life." She said the U.S. supports a "durable and sustainable" cease-fire, but any end to fighting would depend on the willingness of Hamas to stop firing rockets into Israel.

The offensive spurred anti-Israel protests in the Middle East, the Muslim world and in parts of Europe on Friday.

Israel attacked new targets and Palestinians fired at least 30 rockets into southern Israel. But Israel still opened its border with Gaza to allow nearly 300 Palestinians with foreign passports to flee.
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"There is no water, no electricity, no medicine. It's hard to survive. Gaza is destroyed," Jawaher Haggi, a 14-year-old Palestinian American, said after crossing into Israel. She said her uncle was killed in an airstrike when he tried to pick up medicine for her cancer-stricken father, who later died of his illness.

Many of the evacuees were foreign-born women married to Palestinians and their children. Spouses who did not hold foreign citizenship were not allowed out.

Israel's Foreign Ministry said most of the evacuees were Russian or Eastern European, and they were allowed to leave at the request of foreign embassies. They said the decision was not related to military plans.

Israel began the aerial campaign Dec. 27 to try to halt weeks of intensifying Palestinian rocket fire. It has dealt a heavy blow to Hamas, but failed to halt the rockets. Friday's attacks hit homes in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, wounding four Israelis, police said.

Before the airstrikes, Israel's military called some of the houses to warn of an impending attack. In some cases, it also fired a sound bomb to warn civilians before flattening the homes with missiles, Palestinians and Israeli officials said.

Israeli planes also dropped leaflets east of Gaza giving a confidential phone number and e-mail address to report locations of rocket squads. Residents stepped over the leaflets.

Israel used similar tactics during its 2006 war on Hezbollah in Lebanon.

After destroying Hamas' security compounds, Israel turned its attention to the group's leadership. Warplanes hit some 20 houses believed to belong to Hamas militants and members of other armed groups, Palestinians said.

Most of the targeted homes appeared to be empty, but one man was killed in a strike in the Jebaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza.

Separate airstrikes killed five other Palestinians _ including a teenage boy east of Gaza City, and three children _ two brothers and their cousin _ who were playing in southern Gaza, according to Health Ministry official Moaiya Hassanain.

More than 400 Gazans have been killed and 1,700 have been wounded in the Israeli campaign, Gaza health officials said. Hamas has said about half of the dead were members of its security forces.

The U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for the Palestinians Territories estimated that more than 100 of the dead were civilians, many of them women and children. The U.N. also warned of a health and food crisis in Gaza, despite an increase in humanitarian shipments.

Three Israeli civilians and one soldier have died in the rocket attacks, which have reached deeper into Israel than ever before, bringing an eighth of the country's population of 7 million within rocket range.

The mosque destroyed Friday was known as a Hamas stronghold, and the army said it was used to store weapons. It also was identified with Nizar Rayan, the Hamas militant leader killed Thursday when Israel dropped a one-ton bomb on his home.

That airstrike killed 20 people, including all four of Rayan's wives and 11 of his 12 children. The strike obliterated the four-story apartment building and knocked down the walls of others around it.

Israel's military said the homes of Hamas leaders are being used to store missiles and other weapons, and the hit on Rayan's house triggered secondary explosions from the stockpile there.

Israel has targeted Hamas leaders in the past but halted the practice during a six-month truce that expired last month. Most of Hamas' leaders went into hiding at the start of the offensive.

Fear of Israeli attacks led to a sparse turnout at Friday prayers at mosques throughout Gaza, although thousands attended a memorial service for Rayan. Throngs prayed over the rubble of his home and the destroyed mosque nearby.

An imam delivered his sermon via a car loudspeaker as the bodies of Rayan and other family members were covered in green Hamas flags. Afterward, a sea of mourners marched with the bodies.

"The Palestinian resistance will not forget and will not forgive," said Hamas lawmaker Mushir Masri, calling the assassination a "serious" development. "The resistance's response will be very painful."

While keeping up the military pressure, Israel has offered a small opening for the intense diplomatic efforts, saying it would consider a halt to the fighting. But it has attached the strict condition that international monitors enforce the truce. The last truce was repeatedly violated by Palestinian rocket and mortar fire.

Israeli police stepped up security and restricted access to Friday prayers at Jerusalem's al-Aqsa Mosque, barring all males under 50 from entering. The prayers ended without incident, although youths in a nearby neighborhood clashed with anti-riot police on horseback. No injuries were reported.

Jerusalem's mufti, Mohammed Hussein, said only 3,000 Palestinians attended prayers because of the restrictions, which he condemned as contradicting "the principle of freedom of worship."

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, Palestinian police broke up a demonstration by about 3,000 Hamas supporters and arrested about a dozen people. Police also broke up a similar protest in nearby Qalandia. There were anti-Israel protests in Hebron, Nablus and elsewhere in the West Bank.

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Barzak reported from Gaza City; Friedman from Jerusalem.