JERUSALEM: Israel broadened the scope of its air offensive against the Hamas infrastructure in Gaza on Thursday, destroying important symbols of government and killing a senior leader of the militant Islamic group for the first time in its six-day campaign.
With Israeli troops and tanks massed along the border with Gaza poised for a possible ground invasion, the foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, flew to Paris to meet with French leaders who are seeking ways to promote a cease-fire. Before she left, Livni had suggested that Israel was seeking more time for its military operation, whose primary objective is permanently halting the incessant Palestinian rocket fire.
In Paris, she spent an hour at the Élysée Palace with President Nicolas Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. The French issued no official statements about the meeting, and it was not clear exactly why Livni felt the need to come to Paris, which has just passed the rotating presidency of the European Union to the Czechs.
Emerging from the meeting, Livni seemed anxious to assure Europeans, who have protested the assault and its civilian casualties. She said Israel started its operation against Hamas because “the situation became unbearable.”
“We decided to change the equation,” she said. The operation will last as long as Israel deems necessary and is being assessed on a daily basis, she said.
The Israeli Air Force on Thursday afternoon bombed the house of Nizar Rayyan, a senior Hamas leader, killing him along with at least two of his wives and four of his children, Palestinian hospital officials said.
An Israeli military official described Rayyan as an “extremist” who had helped plan suicide bombings and had sent his own son on a suicide mission against Jewish settlers in Gaza in 2001.
Rayyan was known in Gaza as a highly influential figure with strong links to the military wing of Hamas, particularly in northern Gaza where he lived, and as a popular Hamas preacher who openly extolled and championed the idea of martyrdom.
The Israeli military said in a statement that there were many secondary explosions after the air attack, “proving that the house was used for storing weaponry.” It was also used as a communications center, and a tunnel that had been dug under the house was used by terror operatives, the statement said.
Most Hamas leaders in Gaza have been in hiding since the Israeli operation got under way, but Rayyan was said to have refused to leave his home on ideological grounds. In the past, he gathered supporters to stand on rooftops of other houses in Gaza that Israel had threatened to strike.
Hamas has so far responded to the Israeli military assault by firing yet more rockets deeper into Israel. On Thursday, a Katyusha-type rocket fired from Gaza struck an eight-story apartment building in the major port city of Ashdod, about 32 kilometers, or 20 miles, north of the Palestinian territory, causing extensive damage but no serious injury.
Surrounding buildings were also damaged in the blast. Rescue services evacuated the entire building out of fear it would collapse, taking crying children out into a street covered with twisted metal and broken glass.
Earlier on Thursday, Israeli war planes and naval forces bombed Hamas security installations, tunnels used for weapons smuggling and militants’ houses, as well as symbols of government like the Parliament building, a Gaza landmark, and the Hamas-run Ministry of Justice, the Israeli military said.
Medical officials in Gaza said the number of Palestinians killed in the Israeli bombardment had topped 400. While many of the dead were Hamas security personnel, the United Nations said a quarter of those killed were civilians. Some Israeli officials have put the number of Palestinian civilians killed at more like 10 percent.
In France, Livni met with French officials for “an exchange of opinions and ideas” and to share information about Israel’s intentions and plans, an Israeli official said. Livni again rejected the idea proposed earlier this week by Kouchner for a 48-hour lull in fighting for humanitarian purposes. The Israeli official, who was speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly on the proposal, called it “unrealistic,” “hasty” and bordering on “offensive,” saying that Israel was already allowing humanitarian supplies into Gaza every day.
The European Union has, in the meantime, called in a statement for an “immediate and permanent cease-fire” including an “unconditional halt to rocket attacks by Hamas on Israel and an end to Israeli military action.”
Sarkozy is now scheduled to stop in Israel on Monday during a tour of the Middle East.
Israel’s stated goal for its military operation is to halt the rocket fire from Gaza and to create a new security equation in southern Israel, where three civilians and a soldier have been killed in rocket attacks in the last six days.
It has not declared its intention of toppling Hamas, which won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, then took full control of Gaza after routing forces loyal to the rival Palestinian Authority in June 2007.
But in attacking symbols of government on Thursday, Israel seemed to be blurring the lines. Israel, like the United States and the European Union, classifies Hamas as a terrorist group. The military said in a statement on Thursday that Hamas government sites “serve as a critical component of the terrorist groups’ infrastructure in Gaza.”
Livni has emphasized that Israel will not accept Hamas rule as legitimate unless the organization fulfills conditions set by the international community, including recognizing Israel, renouncing all violence and accepting previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinians – conditions that Hamas has so far rejected.
Taghreed El-Khodary contributed reporting from Gaza; Rina Castelnuovo from Ashdod, Israel; and Alison Smale from Paris.
source: herald tribune