Israeli army storms Gaza as Palestinian toll passes 500
AFP - Monday, January 5
GAZA CITY (AFP) - - Tens of thousands of Israeli troops backed by tanks battled Hamas fighters in Gaza fields and roads on Sunday as the Palestinian death toll from the offensive to end militant rocket attacks passed 500.
Israeli forces surrounded the enclave's main city and families fled other battlefield towns in packed trucks and cars to escape the biggest Israeli military operation since its 2006 war in Lebanon.
More than 45 Palestinians were killed by tank shells or missiles fired from warplanes since the ground offensive was launched on Saturday night, Gaza medics said.
Israel said one of its soldiers was by a mortar shell and about 30 were wounded.
Moawiya Hassanein, head of Gaza medical emergency services, told AFP the number of Palestinian killed since the Israeli operation was launched on December 27 had now passed 500, including 87 children.
But he expected the death toll to mount further saying "there are many martyrs and wounded in the streets, but we have not been able to get to them."
Five members of the same family died when a tank shell hit their car near Gaza City on Saturday, emergency services said.
International efforts to halt the conflict sought new impetus after the UN Security Council failed even to agree the wording of a statement on the conflict, with the United States giving strong backing to Israel.
A Russian presidential envoy and an EU ministerial delegation headed to the Middle East to make pleas for a ceasefire.
Israeli infantry and tanks took over areas around Gaza City. Heavy fighting was also reported around the northern towns of Beit Lahiya, Beit Hanun and Jabaliya.
Regular explosions shook the ground and machine gun fire echoed across the Hamas-controlled enclave , home to 1.5 million people, which has been under an Israeli blockade for months.
Hamas fighters fired mortar rounds and detonated roadside bombs in front of advancing Israeli troops, witnesses said.
But the Israeli army took control of the Salaheddine Road, the main highway along the length of the enclave and caught Gaza City in a pincer movement.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak said that "the operation will be expanded and intensified as much as necessary. War is not a picnic."
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the Gaza offensive had been "unavoidable" but Israel would not open a new front in the north, a veiled reference to tensions with the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.
Olmert said he had ordered the army to be "extremely alert" in case "someone might think that this is his opportunity to take advantage" of the conflict in Gaza.
Israel unleashed "Operation Cast Lead" with the declared aim of ending rocket attacks into Israel from Gaza that resumed after a six-month truce ended in December.
Rocket fire over the past week has killed four people in Israel. Thirty two rockets and mortar rounds were fired across the border on Sunday and hit Sderot, Ashdod and other towns, lightly injuring three people.
Schools in southern Israel remain closed. Streets clear as soon as siren alerts of incoming rockets are sounded by authorities.
Israel's offensive has sparked spiralling anger in the Muslim world and protests across the globe.
Israeli troops shot and killed a protester during a demonstration in the West Bank. Tens of thousands of Turks also staged an anti-Israeli rally in Istanbul.
The UN Security Council failed to agree a statement calling for a ceasefire in closed-door consultations late Saturday.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum condemned the Security Council action as "a farce" dominated by the United States, which has strongly supported Israel.
Deputy US ambassador to the United Nations, Alejandro Wolff, said: "The efforts we are making internationally are designed to establish a sustainable, durable ceasefire that's respected by all. And that means no more rocket attacks. It means no more smuggling of arms."
France has led international criticism of the Israeli offensive that Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas warned would have "grave consequences" for the region.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy was to hold talks on Monday with Olmert in Jerusalem and Abbas in Ramallah.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner called the attack a "dangerous military escalation" that would undermine truce efforts.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the Israeli ground offensive had created a "very dangerous moment" in the conflict.
Egypt summoned the ambassadors of the UN Security Council's five permanent members -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- to protest at the delay in passing a ceasefire resolution.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana called for an immediate ceasefire, adding that European nations were ready to contribute international monitors to help.
Israel has called a snap general election for February 10, and the current leadership has widespread public support for the offensive.
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