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Diplomatic Pressure On Israel, Hamas Intensifies

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UPDATE 6 pm

Heavy fighting broke out in Gaza's populated streets Monday night as Israel dismissed calls for a truce, reports the Telegraph.

Explosions were heard in factory districts in the east of the city and refugee camps witnessed heavy fighting throughout the day.

The army said it had hit 40 targets in the Gaza Strip including several tunnels and the homes of a number of Hamas officials.

There were also reports that troops had pounded mosques that they claimed were being used as weapons stores. Six Israeli soldiers were wounded in the fighting.


UPDATE 3:30 pm

Arab leaders convened at the United Nations in New York to discuss plans to end the violence, reports the National. They held closed meetings with representatives of the five permanent Security Council members, it reports.

Riyad al Malki, the Palestinian minister of foreign affairs, arrived in Manhattan ahead of his prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud bin Faisal, openly criticising Israel for a campaign of aggression against Palestinians.

....

Speaking to journalists, Mr al Malki said Arab leaders were preparing a draft Security Council resolution designed to "end the Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people in Gaza and calling for an immediate and permanent ceasefire".

The draft resolution will call for a truce between Israel and militants in Hamas-run Gaza and the opening of the border blockades that have created a humanitarian crisis among the territory's 1.5 million people, he added.

Haaretz reports that the United States has decided to block any Arab initiative that would enable the Security Council to have a direct role in ending the Gaza crisis.

Reliable sources at the UN say that the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, has received explicit instructions from his superiors at the State Department to torpedo any initiative proposed by the Arab bloc which is designed to grant the Security Council the status of an official arbiter that will have direct involvement with disentangling the Gaza crisis.

This directive can explain Washington's persistent opposition to even a non-binding declarative statement issued by the Council, as it did during an emergency meeting late Saturday night.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas "as soon as possible," during his trip to the Middle East today, reports Haaretz. Sarkozy condemned both Israel and Hamas for the ongoing violence.

Addressing a news conference in Ramallah with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Sarkozy said the European Union was working to support efforts to end the bloodshed. He said he would tell Israeli leaders later in the day that the violence must stop. He also condemned Hamas' actions as "irresponsible and unpardonable" for its attacks on Israel.

Sarkozy told three Lebanese newspapers that Hamas bore "a heavy responsibility for the sufferings of the Palestinian people" and that its rocket attacks had to stop.

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The French president also condemned the Israel Defense Forces ground offensive and urged Israel to let humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip.

UPDATE: 12: 30 pm

French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in the West Bank today in a mission to help end the Israel-Hamas conflict, reports Bloomberg. But his trip faced criticism from Italy.

"When everyone conducts his own mission, it weakens the strategic position," Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told SkyTG24 television today. "We must coordinate our action."

Sarkozy is meeting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah and then will dine with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem. He met earlier today with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as Schwarzenberg led the EU mission.

Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Post reports that new clashes broke out in Gaza's densely populated urban areas.

Major clashes between IDF troops and Hamas gunmen were reportedly taking place late Monday evening in the northern Gaza Strip.

The clashes marked the first time the IDF extended its ground operation into the densely populated Gaza urban centers.

UPDATE: 12 pm

President Bush made his first public statement Monday on the Gaza conflict since Israel began its ground invasion, saying Israel was justified in protecting itself.

"I understand Israel's desire to protect itself," Bush said in the Oval Office. "The situation now taking place in Gaza was caused by Hamas."

Israel over the weekend began moving tanks and troops in the coastal Gaza Strip after a week of punishing bombing raids on Hamas targets. The move escalated the latest Mideast conflict into urban warfare, which is sure to increase the casualties and consequences for the region.

"Instead of caring about the people of Gaza, Hamas decided to use Gaza to launch rockets to kill innocent Israelis," Bush said. "Israel's obviously decided to protect herself and her people."

The president said he is still hopeful there will be a cease-fire, which he described as a noble ambition. But he said no peace deal would work unless it forces Hamas to stop its attacks.

The AP reports that the United States is joining international calls for a cease-fire.

In Washington, the State Department said the U.S. was pressing for a cease-fire that would include three main elements, including a halt to rocket attacks.

"We're doing a lot of work on these three elements," said spokesman Sean McCormack said, adding that the goal is to establish a halt to the violence that would meet Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's standard of being durable and sustainable.

10 am:

World leaders are convening in the Middle East Monday to pressure Israel and Hamas to agree to a cease-fire as Israel continues its assault on Gaza for the 10th day.

Hamas will send a delegation to Egypt Monday to discuss a cease-fire in the first diplomatic talks since Israel's Operation Cast Lead began.

Osama Hamdan, the Hamas representative in Lebanon, told Al Jazeera that the core issue that will be discussed in Cairo will be "ending the aggression and lifting the blockade imposed on Gaza for three years now".

French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrives in Israel today to meet with Israel Primer Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, reports Bloomberg. A group of European Union officials will also be on a trip to the region today.

A delegation of EU officials, headed by Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, will meet early this afternoon with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. The Czech Republic currently holds the rotating EU presidency.

The EU's goal is "to stop the conflict, reach a cease- fire," Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said in Prague today. "We have a scenario prepared on how to get involved." He wouldn't elaborate.

Al Jazeera reports that the group includes Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, and the foreign ministers of France and Sweden.

The EU said in a statement that food, emergency shelter items and medical supplies were urgently needed by Palestinians in Gaza and that the aid would be "deployed as rapidly as possible".

Adnan Abu Odeh, a former diplomatic advisor to King Abdullah of Jordan told Al Jazeera that the rush of diplomatic activity in the region would be useful.

"There are a number of positions that are being put together, as rudiments of a solution they are crystallising," Abu Odeh said.

Israel has come under increasing pressure to agree to a cease-fire since it began its ground invasion, Bloomberg reports.

Jordan's King Abdullah said the humanitarian situation in Gaza had deteriorated to the point where "silence is unacceptable." Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called on the UN Security Council and the Quartet members -- the European Union, U.S., Russia and the UN -- "to confront the humanitarian consequence of this aggression."

Mubarak will also meet with Sarkozy today, before the French president travels to Israel, the first Western leader to visit there since the Gaza conflict began. Last week, Israel rejected a French-proposed 48-hour truce with Hamas, saying it was seeking a more permanent end to the Gaza rocket attacks.

Haaretz reports that Israel Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni returned from Paris on Monday and said Israel has no choice but to retaliate for the Hamas rocket attacks.

Livni said Monday that the Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip was intended to "change the equation" in the region, whereby Hamas fires at Israel and Israel responds with restraint.

Speaking to reporters alongside her counterparts from the Czech Republic, France and Sweden, Livni defended Israel's incursion into the Hamas-ruled coastal territory as a form of "legitimate self-defense."

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoga held talks over the weekend to discuss the Israel-Gaza conflict, reports Arab News.

The Turkish premier is engaged in a shuttle diplomacy with Arab countries in the search for a cease-fire. The Israeli military onslaught has troubled Turkey's efforts to broker a wider peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and Syria has suspended Turkish-brokered talks with Israel. Erdogan has already visited Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

"The talks between King Abdullah and Erdogan centered on the dangerous situation in Gaza," Nabi Avci, chief adviser to the Turkish prime minister, told Arab News. "Erdogan came to the Kingdom with a two-step plan, first to discuss how to bring an immediate cease-fire and second how to ensure unity among the ranks of the Palestinian leadership."


Continue reading from the AP:

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Israel seized control of high-rise buildings and attacked houses, mosques and smuggling tunnels as it pressed its offensive against the Gaza Strip's Hamas rulers on Monday, while the U.S. joined a stream of countries pushing for a cease-fire.

At least 14 Palestinian children were killed on Monday, raising the known death toll from the 10-day onslaught to 540 _ including 200 civilians, the U.N. and Palestinian officials said. Gaza's biggest hospital said it was overwhelmed.

From Gaza, Hamas continued to pummel southern Israel with more than two dozen rockets on Monday and promised to wait for Israeli soldiers "in every street and every alleyway."

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the offensive would go on until Israel achieved "peace and tranquility" for residents of southern Israel.

After a week of air strikes beginning Dec. 27, Israeli ground troops invaded Gaza late Saturday. They quickly seized a main highway in Gaza, slicing the territory in half, and on Monday, Israeli forces pounded houses _ one of them belonging to a leading Hamas member who was not there at the time _ a pair of mosques and smuggling tunnels.

Israel has attacked several mosques during the campaign, saying they were used to store weapons.

The Israeli army said "dozens" of militants have been killed or wounded, but Hamas has not released casualty figures. A Palstinian health official said 80 people _ including 70 civilians _ have died since the ground invasion began, fueling international outrage.
Story continues below

Israel has three main demands: an end to Palestinian attacks, international supervision of any truce and a halt to Hamas rearming. Hamas demands a cessation of Israeli attacks and the opening of vital Gaza-Israel cargo crossings, Gaza's main lifeline.

In Washington, the State Department said the U.S. was pressing for a cease-fire that would include three main elements, including a halt to rocket attacks.

"We're doing a lot of work on these three elements," said spokesman Sean McCormack said, adding that the goal is to establish a halt to the violence that would meet Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's standard of being durable and sustainable.

President George W. Bush, however, emphasized "Israel's desire to protect itself."

"The situation now taking place in Gaza was caused by Hamas," he said in the Oval Office.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who unsuccessfully proposed a two-day truce before the land invasion began, was due to meet Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who lost control of Gaza to Hamas in June 2007.

While blaming Hamas for causing Palestinian suffering with rocket fire that led to the Israeli offensive, Sarkozy has condemned Israel's use of ground troops, reflecting general world opinion. Sarkozy and other diplomats making their way to the region are expected to press hard for a cease-fire.

A European Union delegation met with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Monday.

"The EU insists on a cease-fire at the earliest possible moment," said Karel Schwarzenberg, the foreign minister of the Czech Republic, which took over the EU's presidency last week. Rocket attacks on Israel also must stop, Schwarzenberg told a joint news conference with Livni.

The EU brought no truce proposals of its own to the region because the cease-fire "must be concluded by the involved parties," he added.

Livni said the operation was designed to change the rules of Israel's struggle against Hamas after seven years of rocket fire at Israeli towns. From now on, she said, "When Israel is targeted, Israel is going to retaliate."

Israel's operation angered many across the Arab world and has drawn criticism from countries like Turkey, Egypt and Jordan, which have ties with Israel and have been involved intimately in Mideast peacemaking.

The Palestinian foreign minister, Riad Malki, who works within the rival Fatah administration from the West Bank, asked the U.N. Security Council to quickly adopt a resolution calling for an immediate end to Israeli attacks in Gaza and a permanent cease-fire including border monitors and an international force to protect civilians.

Israeli forces seized sparsely populated areas in northern Gaza and by Monday morning were dug in on the edges of Gaza City.

Gaza's biggest hospital, Shifa, has been swamped by the bloodshed. Bodies were two to a morgue drawer, the wounded were being treated in hallways because beds were full, and three preschool boys killed in an artillery strike Monday were laid out on a floor.

Since Israel mounted its ground offensive three days ago, most of the dead and wounded arriving at Shifa have been civilians, including 21 who died in various attacks across Gaza on Monday.

Fourteen of them were children, said health official Dr. Moaiya Hassanain.

Four young siblings were killed in a missile strike on a house east of Gaza City, Hassanain said, and a mother and her four children were killed in another strike. Three other children died in a naval shelling of a Gaza City beach camp, and three toddlers died in an attack on another town outside Gaza City, a different Gaza health official said.

Israeli troops seized three six-story buildings on the outskirts of Gaza City, taking up rooftop positions after locking residents in rooms and taking away their cell phones, a neighbor said, quoting a relative in one of the buildings who called before his phone was taken away.

"The army is there, firing in all directions," said Mohammed Salmai, a 29-year-old truck driver. "All we can do is take clothes to each other to keep ourselves warm and pray to God that if we die, someone will find our bodies under the rubble."

Civilian casualties have spiked since Israel launched the ground offensive. Of the 80 confirmed deaths, at least 70 were civilians, Hassanain said.

Maj. Avital Leibovich, an Israeli military spokeswoman, said Hamas was to blame for civilian casualties because it operates in densely populated areas.

"If Hamas chose cynically to use those civilians as human shields, then Hamas should be accountable," she said. "Civilians will probably continue to get killed, unfortunately, because Hamas put them in the first lines of fire."

Black smoke from tank shells and wind-swept dust billowed in the air over Gaza City, home to 400,000 people, where the streets were almost empty. Two children crossing a street near a Hamas security compound didn't bother to look right and left for cars but gazed up at the sky, apparently looking for attack aircraft.

Unmanned Israeli planes and Apache helicopters circled overhead.

Hamas leaders went into hiding before the Israeli military strike began and only on rare occasions have addressed the Gaza residents in broadcasts from their hideouts.

On Monday, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar exhorted Palestinians to fight the Israeli forces and target Israeli civilians.

"The Zionists have legitimized the killing of their children by killing our children. They have legitimized the killing of their people all over the world by killing our people," Zahar said in a grainy video broadcast on Hamas TV.

A spokesman for Hamas' military wing, identified by a nom de guerre, Abu Obeida, warned the Israelis that militants "wait for you in every street and every alleyway."

The ground clashes took place in open areas militants use to launch rockets and mortars at nearby Israeli communities, but did not advance into urban areas where casualties are liable to swell.

The Israeli military said aircraft carried out 30 sorties overnight, including strikes against a mosque in Jebaliya that contained a large store of weapons and an underground arms bunker in the Gaza City area that touched off secondary explosions and collapsed underground smuggling tunnels.

The violence has deepened the suffering in impoverished Gaza, home to 1.4 million people. The military said Monday that 80 truckloads of humanitarian aid and critical fuel supplies would be let in.

Israel's ground operation is the second phase in an offensive that began as a weeklong aerial onslaught aimed at halting Hamas rocket fire that now threatens major cities and one-eighth of Israel's population of 7 million people.

Five Israelis have been killed since the offensive began, including a soldier who died in the ground operation. Heavy Israeli casualties could undermine what has so far been overwhelming public support for the operation.

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Teibel reported from Jerusalem.