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***UPDATE*** January 4th, 9:38PM The Times of London reports that Israel's rain of fire on Gaza is thought to be caused by controversial white phosphorus shells that can cause intense burns:
Israel is believed to be using controversial white phosphorus shells to screen its assault on the heavily populated Gaza Strip yesterday. The weapon, used by British and US forces in Iraq, can cause horrific burns but is not illegal if used as a smokescreen.
As the Israeli army stormed to the edges of Gaza City and the Palestinian death toll topped 500, the tell-tale shells could be seen spreading tentacles of thick white smoke to cover the troops' advance. "These explosions are fantastic looking, and produce a great deal of smoke that blinds the enemy so that our forces can move in," said one Israeli security expert. Burning blobs of phosphorus would cause severe injuries to anyone caught beneath them and force would-be snipers or operators of remote-controlled booby traps to take cover. Israel admitted using white phosphorus during its 2006 war with Lebanon.
***UPDATE*** January 4th, 6:55PM Haaretz is reporting that Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni rejected a Russian offer to pass messages on to Hamas:
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Sunday rejected an offer by a Russian envoy to contact Hamas via Russia in order to reach a cease-fire with the Palestinian militant group in Gaza.
"We are serious in our intention to harm Hamas and we have no intention to give them legitimize them and pass messages on to them. We have nothing to discuss with Hamas," Livni told Alexander Saltanov, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's special envoy to the Middle East.
***UPDATE*** January 4th, 2:55PM Secretary of State Rice has canceled a planned trip to China in order to concentrate fully on Israel's offense against Hamas.
The AP says that an equally important goal for Israel as dismantling Hamas' ability to launch rockets almost at will is to erase any memory of errors from its war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006:
That 34-day campaign against Hezbollah guerrillas was marred by hasty decisions and unrealistic expectations. With meticulous preparations and limited aims this time around, the Gaza offensive is meant to restore the army's credibility at home -- and its power of deterrence against Arab enemies.
"Things are being done in a much more orderly way," Cabinet minister Isaac Herzog said...
...The inconclusive outcome was widely viewed as a failure in Israel, costing the defense minister, military chief and other top generals their jobs and raising questions about the army's toughness. Surrounded by a sea of enemies, Israel relies on military superiority as a cornerstone of its foreign policy.
In launching the mission [against Hamas in Gaza], Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was accused in a government probe of hasty decision making and "very severe failures" during the Lebanon war, has tried hard to send the message that he learned his lessons.
Olmert's inner Cabinet held no less than six lengthy debates over the operation, most recently on Friday, and he has repeatedly told the public how much he agonized over the decision to send soldiers into harm's way...
...While the Lebanon crisis caught the army off guard, Israeli military officials say the Gaza operation was planned for months...
...Most critically, Israel moved quickly to the ground phase of its Gaza offensive. In 2006, it relied heavily on air power until the closing days of the war. The aerial attacks quickly ran out of useful targets, and allowed Hezbollah to prepare for Israel's last-minute ground push.
***UPDATE*** January 4th, 12:40PM Reuters reports that Israel has barred foreign correspondents from entering Gaza.
***UPDATE*** January 4th, 12:31PM Watch video reports of Israeli troops rolling into Gaza.
***UPDATE*** January 4th, 11:55AM The Jerusalem Post reports that Israel has suffered its first casualty from the ground invasion of Gaza:
St.- Sgt. Dvir Emanuelof, 22, from Givat Ze'ev, one of two IDF soldiers critically wounded in a mortar shell attack near Jabalya in the Gaza Strip, died of his wounds on Sunday.
The IDF said that the death was the first fatality in the ground operation in Gaza, which was launched Saturday. The families of Emanuelof, and the soldier in a critical condition, had both been notified, according to the IDF.
***UPDATE*** January 4th, 9:45AM In an analysis, the Washington Post examines how this iteration of a long-standing conflict is dividing the Arab world between the rulers and the ruled. On the Arab street the Palestinian cause is a cherished symbol, and Arab rulers are often accused of not offering any support beyond rhetoric. Nowhere is this more true than Egypt:
The intersection of the issue's resonance with official Egyptian and Saudi criticism of Hamas has created a conflict in policy and sentiment as pronounced as perhaps at any time in modern Arab history.
Protests have erupted across the Arab world, with especially large gatherings Friday. More were convened Saturday in Europe. The Middle East was dominated by laments at the seeming impotence of Arab governments. Al-Jazeera reported that Moroccan demonstrators Saturday condemned "the cowardice" of Arab rulers. At a protest in Beirut, the ire was directed at Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
***UPDATE*** January 4th, 9:15AM Israeli forces backed by heavy artillery have stormed into the Gaza strip, dividing the coastal area in two and surrounding the strip's biggest city.
Israel says that it has "hit" dozens of militants during heavy gun battles. So far about 30 soldiers had been wounded, two seriously.
Despite the now heavy troop presence on the ground in Gaza, Hamas continues to fire rockets at southern Israel:
Even with Israeli forces on the ground, though, Hamas continued its rocket fire. About 25 rockets were launched at southern Israel by Sunday afternoon, the military said. One hit a house in the Israeli border town of Sderot. Touring the town some time later, Michael R. Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, had to be rushed into a protected space when Sderot's incoming rocket alert sounded.
Most of the fighting early Sunday was taking place in northern and eastern Gaza, in areas not far from the Israeli border. But at least five civilians were killed and many wounded on Sunday morning when Israeli shells or rockets landed in the market of Gaza City while people were stocking up on supplies.
The head of the Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service, claimed that Hamas has eased their demands for a cease-fire as a result of the pounding offensive.
Arab TV networks reported that two Israeli soldiers had been captured by Hamas, and the militant group issued a statement today saying that "two soldiers were kidnapped." However, the IDF said they were aware of no such report and were checking into it. They accused Hamas of engaging in "psychological warfare" against the Israeli people.
The Israeli government continued to stress that they have no intention of occupying Gaza:
Previously, Barak updated US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on recent developments in the operation, in an overnight Saturday phone conversation.
Barak told Gates that "the operation will be extended as far as necessary, in order to end the Gaza-based hostile actions against Israel, and bring a fundamental change to the condition in the South."
In another phone conversation, Barak told British Foreign Secretary David Miliband that "we are following the situation on the northern border as well. We have no intention to enter a confrontation there."
Civilians have been caught in the middle between Hamas and Israel, and fighting in Gaza's packed city of 1.5 million leaves civilians even more exposed:
With booms from artillery and airstrikes keeping them awake, the 10 members of Lubna Karam's family spent the night huddled in the hallway of their Gaza City home.
Earlier strikes shattered the living room windows, letting cold air pour in. The Karams haven't had electricity for a week and have run out of cooking gas. The family, including three small children younger than four, eats cold, canned beans.
"It's war food," said Karam, 28. "What else can we do?"
As Israel's offensive against Hamas moves from pinpointed airstrikes to ground fighting and artillery shelling, Gaza's civilians are increasingly exposed. Some two dozen civilians were killed within hours after the start of Israel's ground invasion Saturday night.
Israel says eight days of aerial bombardment, followed by the ground invasion, seek to undermine Hamas' ability to fire rockets at the Jewish state. So far, more than 500 Palestinians and four Israelis have been killed. Palestinian and U.N. officials say at least 100 Palestinian civilians are among the dead.
The ground offensives will put Israeli solders, Gaza militants and civilians in much closer quarters.
The guiding principle of Israel's ground invasion is to move in with full force and try to minimize Israeli casualties, Israeli military correspondent Alex Fishman wrote in the daily Yediot Ahronoth. "We'll pay the international price later for the collateral damage and the anticipated civilian casualties," Fishman said.
While Israeli said its airstrikes have targeted only Hamas installations and leaders, some of the bombs were so powerful that they destroyed or damaged adjacent houses.
***UPDATE*** 11:43PM New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is heading to Israel to show his support, along with NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly and New York Rep. Gary Ackerman.
***UPDATE*** 11:40PM The U.S. has blocked a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire in the Gaza strip:
The United States late Saturday blocked approval of a U.N. Security Council statement calling for an immediate cease-fire in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel and expressing concern at the escalation of violence between Israel and Hamas.
U.S. deputy ambassador Alejandro Wolff said the United States saw no prospect of Hamas abiding by last week's council call for an immediate end to the violence. Therefore, he said, a new statement at this time "would not be adhered to and would have no underpinning for success, would not do credit to the council."
France's U.N. Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert, the current council president, announced that there was no agreement among members on a statement. But he said there were "strong convergences" among the 15 members to express serious concern about the deteriorating situation in Gaza and the need for "an immediate, permanent and fully respected cease-fire."
***UPDATE*** 11:00PM The Washington Post has a good piece analyzing the the risks and benefits of Israel's invasion.
Haaretz, citing sources, says that Hezbollah has no interest opening a military front with Israel form Lebanon regardless of Israel's ground invasion of Gaza.
Arab nations called for the UN to declare an immediate cease-fire:
Arab nations demanded Saturday that the United Nations Security Council call for an immediate cease-fire following Israel's launch of a ground offensive in Gaza, a view echoed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Libya circulated a draft statement to council members before emergency council consultations began expressing "serious concern at the escalation of the situation in Gaza" following Israel's ground assault and calling on Israel and Hamas "to stop immediately all military activities."
The 15-member council then met behind closed doors to discuss a proposed presidential statement that would also call for all parties to address the humanitarian and economic needs in Gaza, including by opening border crossings.
Council diplomats said the United States opposed the presidential statement because it was similar to a press statement issued by members after Israeli warplanes launched the offensive a week ago that was not heeded. Presidential statements become part of the council's official record but press statements are weaker and do not.
The five permanent council members -- the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China -- along with Libya, the only Arab nation on the council, then met privately to discuss possibly issuing another press statement.
***UPDATE*** 10:10PM While Israel has said that its goal is to dismantle Hamas' ability to launch, Haaretz concludes that the aim is broader. Israel is hoping to force Hamas to agree to a "long-term cease-fire" with terms favorable to Israel. Israel believes that it is more prepared for an assault now that it was when they went into Lebanon, and that Hamas is not Hezbollah:
Senior IDF officials reported that the Air Force was nearing the end of its "target bank" and that a ground operation must be launched immediately if the overall operational goals were to be met. The army believes the incursion into Gaza will do significant damage to Hamas' standing army and at the same time give Hamas leaders a palpable sense that their rule is in danger...
...This knowledge has not affected the army's motivation and readiness, however. Hamas is not Hezbollah and the IDF circa January 2009 is not the IDF of 2006. It is sharper, more determined and better trained. The intelligence is infinitely better this time. The offensive was prepared over a long period of time. It is very aggressive, with massive air and artillery fire preceding the ground and artillery forces.
Hamas has placed dozens of members of its rival Fatah under house arrest, cracking down on Fatah "collaborators" out of fear that they will use the chaos to regain control of Gaza.
***UPDATE*** 6:16PM The UN Security Council has scheduled an emergency meeting to discuss the ongoing crisis in Gaza:
The United Nations Security Council has scheduled emergency consultations to address the escalation of violence in Gaza.
The decision Saturday came after Israeli tanks and infantry rolled into Gaza in a ground offensive in the widening war against Hamas.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged key world leaders to intensify efforts to achieve an immediate Israeli-Hamas cease-fire that includes international monitors to enforce a truce and possibly to protect Palestinian civilians.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and several Arab foreign ministers are flying to New York over the weekend to urge the Security Council to adopt an Arab draft resolution that would condemn Israel and demand a halt to its bombing campaign in Gaza.
Israel sent ground troops into the Gaza strip today, escalating an offensive against Hamas that had so far been conducted exclusively from the air. According to Haaretz, initial reports indicate that dozens of Hamas militants have been killed in heavy gun battles against Israeli Defense Forces. Israel has mobilized a significant number of troops and artillery for this operation:
Large numbers of forces are taking part in this stage of the operation including infantry, tanks, engineering forces, artillery and intelligence with the support of the Israel Air Force, Israel navy, the Shin Bet security service and other security agencies.
Meanwhile, the cabinet has authorized an emergency call up of tens of thousands of IDF reservists.
Israel's stated goal is to destroy Hamas' ability to pepper the southern part of the country with rockets. To this end, Israel plans to take control of some of the launch areas used by Hamas:
"Israeli forces plan -- inter alia -- to take control of the launch areas from which most of the missiles that have hit Sderot, Ashkelon and Ashdod in recent weeks and months have been fired," according to an e-mailed statement from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office.
The casualty rate is expected to rise as the fighting gets heavier and heavier. Thus far Hamas has sustained most of the casualties, but the militant group has been preparing for an infantry invasion, and the risks of Israeli casualties has increased considerably:
Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan said in a televised speech that Gaza will "become a graveyard" for Israeli soldiers. He appeared on Hamas' Al Aqsa TV shortly after the ground offensive began but it was not immediately clear whether the appearance was live or taped.
After the invasion, Hamas spokespeople and militants fired off fiery warnings to the Israeli forces. In another message, Hamas warned Israeli forces that "Gaza will not be paved with flowers for you, it will be paved with fire and hell."
Hamas has long prepared for Israel's invasion, digging tunnels and rigging some areas with explosives. At the start of the offensive, Israeli artillery hit some of the border areas, apparently to detonate hidden explosives.
Meanwhile, protests against Israel have sprung up across Europe.
The New York Times, in an analysis piece, questions whether Israel's real goal is to topple Hamas entirely from power since stopping the rocket attacks for any length of time is very difficult while Hamas remains in control of Gaza overall.
From AP: GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Israeli tanks and troops launched a ground offensive in the Gaza Strip Saturday night with officials saying they expected a lengthy fight with Hamas militants in the densely populated territory after eight days of punishing airstrikes failed to halt rocket attacks on Israel.
Hamas vowed that Gaza would be a "graveyard" for Israelis forces.
"This will not be easy and it will not be short," Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said soon after the ground invasion began.
The incursion was preceded by several hours of heavy artillery fire after dark, igniting flames in the night sky. Machine gun fire rattled as bright tracer rounds flashed through the darkness and the crash of hundreds of shells sent up streaks of fire.
Artillery fired illuminating rounds, sending streaks of bright light drifting down over Gaza's densely packed neighborhoods. Gunbattles could be heard, as troops crossed the border into Gaza, marching single file. They were backed by helicopter gunships and tanks.
Israeli security officials said the objective is not to reoccupy Gaza. The depth and intensity of the ground operation will depend on parallel diplomatic efforts, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
"I don't want to disillusion anybody and residents of the south will go through difficult days," Barak said. "We do not seek war but we will not abandon our citizens to the ongoing Hamas attacks."
The U.N. Security Council scheduled emergency consultations Saturday night on the escalation of violence in Gaza.
Eight days of airstrikes have left more than 460 Palestinians dead and four Israelis were killed by rocket fire. Gaza is densely populated, and intense urban warfare in those conditions could exact a much higher civilian toll.
The U.N. estimates that at least a quarter of the Palestinians killed so far were civilian.
"We have many, many targets, Israeli army spokeswoman Maj. Avital Leibovich told CNN. "To my estimation, it will be a lengthy operation."
Before the ground incursion began, heavy Israeli artillery fire hit east of Gaza City in locations were Hamas fighters were deployed. The artillery shells were apparently intended to detonate Hamas explosive devices and mines planted along the border area before troops marched in.
"Gaza will not be paved with flowers for you, it will be paved with fire and hell," Hamas warned Israeli forces. Spokesman Ismail Radwan said in a televised speech Gaza will "become a graveyard" for Israeli soldiers.
A text message sent by Hamas' military wing, Izzedine al-Qassam, said "the Zionists started approaching the trap which our fighters prepared for them." Hamas said it also broadcast a Hebrew message on Israeli military radio frequencies promising to kill and kidnap the Israeli soldiers.
"Be prepared for a unique surprise, you will be either killed or kidnapped and will suffer mental illness from the horrors we will show you," the message said.
Hamas has also threatened to resume suicide attacks inside Israel.
Hamas has long prepared for Israel's invasion, digging tunnels and rigging some areas with explosives. At the start of the offensive, Israeli artillery hit some of the border areas, apparently to detonate hidden explosives.
The Israeli government said tens of thousands of reserve soldiers are being mobilized as the offensive in Gaza widens. Before the ground incursion began, defense officials said about 10,000 Israeli soldiers had massed along the border in recent days.
The offensive began last Saturday with a week of aerial bombardment of Hamas targets, in an attempt to halt Hamas rocket attacks that were reaching farther into Israel than ever before.
Despite the military onslaught, Hamas kept firing at Israeli towns, and Israeli officials said diplomatic efforts did not produced a satisfactory plan so far to guarantee a halt to rockets.
Israel initially held off on a ground offensive, apparently in part because of concern about casualties among Israeli troops and because of fears of getting bogged down in Gaza.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said before the ground operation began that Israel might have no choice but to move in on the ground.
"There are targets that can be done from the air and targets that cannot," Livni told Channel 2 TV.
She said Israel had broader objectives than just trying to stop Gaza militants from firing rockets into the country's south. She told the interviewer that toppling Hamas was "a strategic Israeli objective" but said that more than one military offensive might be needed to achieve Israel's aims.
"I cannot accept a state controlled by a terror organization in Gaza," Livni said.
Israeli airstrikes intensified just as the ground operation was getting under way, and 28 Palestinians were killed. One raid hit a mosque in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya, killing 13 people and wounding 33, according to a Palestinian health official.
One of the wounded worshippers, Salah Mustafa, told Al-Jazeera TV from a hospital that the mosque was packed.
"It was unbelievably awful," he said, struggling to catch his breath.
It was not immediately clear why the mosque was hit, but Israel has hit other mosques in its air campaign and said they were used for storing weapons.
Artillery fire is less accurate than attacks from the air using precision-guided munitions, raising the possibility of a higher number of civilian casualties.
An artillery shell hit a house in Beit Lahiya, killing two people and wounding five, said members of the family living there. Ambulances could not immediately reach them because of the resulting fire, they said.
Resident Abed al-Ghoul said the Israeli army called by phone to tell them to leave the house within 15 minutes.
Palestinian militants kept up their fire as well, launching 29 rockets into Israel Saturday, hitting four houses and lightly wounding three people.
One rocket scored a direct hit on a house in the southern city of Ashkelon and another struck a bomb shelter there, leaving its above-ground entrance scarred by shrapnel and blasting a parked bus.
The ground operation sidelined intense international diplomacy to try to reach a truce. French President Nicolas Sarkozy was the visit the region next week, and U.S. President George W. Bush and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon both spoke in favor of an internationally monitored truce.
Israel has already said it wants international monitors. It is unclear whether Hamas would agree to such supervision, which could limit its control of Gaza. Hamas has ruled the area since seizing control in June 2007.
In Hamas' first reaction to the proposal for international monitors, government spokesman Taher Nunu said early Saturday that the group would not allow Israel or the international community to impose any arrangement, though he left the door open to a negotiated solution.
"Anyone who thinks that the change in the Palestinian arena can be achieved through jet fighters' bombs and tanks and without dialogue is mistaken," he said.
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