Monday, January 5, 2009

Civilian casualties rise as Israel presses in on Gaza City

Civilian casualties rise as Israel presses in on Gaza City

Dion Nissenbaum

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Israel’s military push to cripple Hamas rulers in the Gaza Strip claimed more civilian lives Monday as European leaders renewed a push to bring the 10-day-old conflict to a swift end.

Israeli soldiers tightened their hold on the Gaza Strip in the second full day of a ground offensive that's so far faced lighter-than-expected resistance from Palestinian militants.

Israeli tanks, armored personnel carriers and special forces began to close in on Gaza City methodically after encircling the Gaza Strip’s largest city in the first hours of the ground offensive.

Israeli soldiers advancing on Gaza City warned families in outlying towns and neighborhoods to flee as the military pressed forward with its attempt to undermine Hamas and curb the rocket fire that's traumatized southern Israelis for years.

The ground operation is taking an increasingly deadly toll on Palestinians in Gaza, who have few ways to escape the fighting.

Medical officials in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip said Monday that Israeli attacks had killed 523 Palestinians, including 111 children. Israel has barred international news media from Gaza since the operation began, and the numbers couldn't be verified.

If they're confirmed, that would mark a dramatic spike in civilian casualties from the early days of Israeli airstrikes that primarily targeted Hamas-controlled police stations, the homes of Hamas leaders, government buildings and mosques that the Israeli military said were being used to store weapons.

Eleven members of one family, including five children, were killed in a northern Gaza City neighborhood early Monday morning after Israeli forces ordered them to leave their home, medical officials said. The family members said they'd sought safety in another apartment that was then hit by an Israeli strike.

Civilian deaths are likely to rise as the Israeli forces move in on the narrow city streets and refugee camp alleys where Gaza militants have taken up positions.

“Usually you have people trying to flee the area of conflict,” said John Ging, the head of the United Nations refugee agency in the Gaza Strip. “But they don’t have this choice in Gaza because they are trapped in a very, very densely populated area.”

Palestinian militants continued Monday to fire sporadic volleys of rockets and mortar rounds into southern Israel, even as Israeli soldiers sought to seize areas of the Gaza Strip from which they're routinely fired. Palestinian rocket attacks have killed four Israeli civilians in the past 10 days.

European leaders are making a new push to broker a cease-fire.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy was expected to arrive in the Middle East on Monday evening for separate emergency meetings with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

In parallel, a three-person European Union delegation met Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Monday to call for an immediate cease-fire.

“The European Union insists on a cease-fire at the earliest possible moment,” said Karel Schwarzenberg, the foreign minister for the Czech Republic, which became the leader of the 27-member body last week. “We are not sharing the view that the cease-fire is only possible if all possible aims of the Israeli action are achieved.”

Israeli officials rebuffed an early attempt by Sarkozy to broker a 48-hour truce, but are beginning to outline the parameters for ending the fighting.

A senior Israeli official said the government was exploring ways to marginalize Hamas in any peace deal. Israel has three major objectives, said the official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the talks: substantially curbing Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza, boosting Israel’s image as a feared Middle East military power by severely damaging Hamas' military capabilities, and ensuring that Palestinian militants aren't able to continue rearming by using smuggler tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.

While Israeli soldiers were preparing for a fierce fight, they've so far faced lighter-than-expected resistance from Gaza militants. So far, only one Israeli soldier has been killed in the fighting.

Some analysts suspect that Hamas fighters are trying to draw Israeli soldiers into densely populated urban areas, where street battles would be more difficult for the Israel Defense Forces.

“Hamas’ glorious fighters have disengaged from the IDF, leaving their bombs behind them as they fire mortar shells on the fly,” Israeli columnist Ben Caspit wrote in Monday’s edition of the newspaper Maariv. “It turns out that there’s a real difference between the ridiculous parades they put on in their camouflage uniforms and the dramatic shows of military prowess that get broadcast on TV and between the real thing.”

He warned that a tougher fight may still be ahead, however.

“True, Israel overestimated Hamas’ strength and capabilities, but we mustn’t now fall into the trap of underestimating them,” Caspit wrote. “All of the explosives that were packed into the rockets that were fired at Israel could be fit into just two bombs that the IAF (the Israel air force) dropped on them. And the IAF has already dropped a thousand such bombs on them.”

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