GAZA: Backed by fire from air, sea and land, Israeli troops and tanks continued to push deeper into Gaza on Monday after rebuffing diplomatic efforts to end the 10-day assault.
Even as President Nicolas Sarkozy of France readied a new quest for a cease-fire, Israeli forces took control of rocket-launching areas and surrounded Gaza City after slicing through the center of the beleaguered territory on Sunday.
Despite the onslaught, Hamas militants continued to lob rockets into southern Israel, witnesses said, as Gaza residents, fearful of growing casualties, faced severe power shortages and other deprivations. The reported death toll of Palestinians passed 500 since the assault began, including 100 said to be civilians.
Hospital officials in Gaza said 81 Palestinians had died so far in the ground offensive, which is now in its third day, and more than 400 had been injured.
Witnesses and hospital officials reported on Monday that 11 members of the Al-Samouni family, including 5 children, died in one air strike and, according to Reuters, three children were killed in a separate incident as Israeli shellfire fell on Gaza
Masouda Al-Samouni, 20, said she had been preparing food for her 10-month-old son when the missile struck. “He died hungry,” she said in an interview.
Hamas, the Islamist militant group that governs Gaza, had warned that Israeli ground troops would find themselves trapped, resulting in numerous casualties.
Israel reported the death of one soldier during the ground campaign. Four other Israelis, including civilians, were killed by shelling from Gaza since Israel began its assault on Dec. 27. The Israeli military, which said it was checking the reports of civilian deaths, also said it launched 30 air strikes overnight.
Senior Israeli officials said that the fighting could go on for days, if not weeks, and that calls for a cease-fire were premature. Apart from President Sarkozy’s mission to the region, set to begin Monday, the European Union and Egypt are engaged in contacts to try to build a truce. Sarkozy plans to visit Cairo, Jerusalem, Damascus and the West Bank city of Ramallah.
But as the outsiders talked, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak insisted that, while Hamas had “sustained a very heavy blow from us,” Gaza operation was not finished. “We have yet to achieve our objective,” he told Israel Radio.
Israel’s fundamental aim, he said, was “to change the reality of security for the south” of the country, which is threatened by Hamas missiles.
Hamas officials in Gaza said two senior officials from the organization had been invited to Cairo to discuss the crisis with the Egyptian authorities.
As the ground offensive unfolded on Sunday, Israel aimed its power at Hamas’s fighters and infrastructure and said its forces had killed several dozen militants, including a senior leader, and destroyed a smuggling tunnel.
Palestinian officials did not confirm the militants’ deaths, and it was difficult for foreign news organizations to verify Israel’s claims, because journalists have been restricted from entering Gaza.
At Shifa hospital, dozens of casualties seen being brought in over many hours all appeared to be civilians.
Most of the fighting 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 when Israeli shells or rockets landed in the market of Gaza City while people were stocking up on supplies.
Israel has said it wants to end Hamas’s will or ability to shoot rockets at civilians in southern Israel, which Hamas has been doing for years, terrifying tens of thousands of inhabitants. Recent rocket attacks have been of longer range and greater power, suggesting that Hamas has been successfully arming itself in recent months, and adding urgency to Israel’s efforts to stop the attacks.
But Israel has not made clear if its goal of ending rocket fire includes ending Hamas’s 18-month rule. The rockets from Gaza continued Monday after some 45 missiles hit Israel on Sunday, including the city of Sderot, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York was visiting. He was rushed to a safe area when the alert sounded. Across southern Israel, six people were reported to have suffered minor injuries.
Rage in the Arab and Muslim worlds intensified over Israel’s war, with demonstrations in recent days in Turkey and Lebanon as well as in a number of European capitals. The leaders of Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, which all have diplomatic relations with Israel, condemned the attacks as disproportionate and called for them to end.
During rock-throwing demonstrations near the Israeli separation barrier in Qalqilya in the occupied West Bank, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian man, according to an Israeli Army spokeswoman. She said that two Palestinians had started to climb the barrier and ignored warning shots from Israeli soldiers.
There have been scattered arrests of protesters, including seven Israeli Arabs, since Israel began its ground offensive in Gaza on Saturday night.
But the United States placed the onus on Hamas, saying it must stop the rockets. The European Union, now headed by the Czech Republic, was increasingly critical of Israel and urged it to allow more aid into Gaza, saying it worried about rising civilian casualties.
One Israeli official said about efforts to end the operation, “We still have time.”
Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said that Olmert had been constantly on the phone with world leaders and that the goal of the conversations was to construct a mechanism for a cease-fire.
In Moscow, President Dmitri Medvedev’s office said in a statement that he had talked with Olmert on Sunday night to express concern about Gaza’s civilians and stressed “the importance of the swiftest possible cease-fire.” The statement also said Russia, a member of the so-called quartet of Middle East mediators that also includes the United States, the European Union and the United Nations, planned to convene a meeting in Moscow to help “normalize the situation in the region.”
At the United Nations, the United States blocked the Security Council from issuing a formal statement on Saturday night calling for an immediate cease-fire, saying there was no indication Hamas would abide by any agreement.
However, with the arrival of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and the top foreign ministers for eight Arab nations in New York on Monday, United Nations officials say they expect to see increasing pressure on the Security Council to take some sort of action. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled a planned trip to China to focus on Gaza.
Taghreed El-Khodary reported from Gaza and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem. Reporting was contributed by Ethan Bronner on the Israeli-Gaza border, Steven Erlanger from Jerusalem, Dina Kraft from Sderot, Israel, Ellen Barry from Moscow, and Marc Santora from the United Nations. Alan Cowell contributed from Paris.