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Israel takes fighting into Gaza suburbs

By Donald Macintyre and Kim Sengupta in Jerusalem
The Independent
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/israel-takes-fighting-into-gaza-suburbs-1301559.html


Israeli troops and tanks began heavy fighting in a suburb of Gaza City for the first time yesterday as medics reported 29 Palestinian deaths and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared that Israel was `getting close to achieving the goals it set for itself`.

Israeli troops and tanks began heavy fighting in a suburb of Gaza City for the first time yesterday as medics reported 31 Palestinian deaths and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared that Israel was `getting close to achieving the goals it set for itself`.

But with the senior Israeli Defence Ministry official, Amos Gilad, preparing to return to Cairo for talks, Mr Olmert set no timetable for ending a campaign which has killed an estimated 884 Palestinians and is aimed at halting rocket attacks on southern Israel. Mr Olmert instead said `patience, determination and effort are needed to realise these goals in a manner that will change the security situation in the south`.

It was still not clear last night if the Israeli military intended to implement its `third phase` of the campaign and penetrate deeper into Gaza City and other urban centres before allowing further diplomatic efforts to end the war. The military fuelled speculation that phase was under way when it said reserve units were operating in Gaza.

Maxwell Gaylard, the UN`s humanitarian co-ordinator for Palestinian territories, said residents were `terrified, starving, traumatised, thirsty, desperate`. Civilians are a high proportion of the casualties, including 275 children under 18, according to Gaza Ministry of Health figures cited by the UN. So far, 30,000 people have taken refuge in 31 UN shelters in Gaza and thousands more have fled their homes.

Yesterday`s fighting in the Sheikh Aijleen area of southern Gaza City came after 24 hours of land and air bombardment, during which eight members of the Abed Rabbo family were killed when a shell hit their Jabalya home. The strikes destroyed the home of the leader of Hamas`s military wing, Ahmad Jabari, who was away.

Israel said that amid `many exchanges of fire` between troops, it had conducted more than 60 air strikes, including one which it said had hit a squad responsible for launching two Grad rockets that had landed in Beersheba, one near an empty kindergarten. In all, it said militants had fired 20 rockets at southern Israel.

The Israeli military claimed last night that it was facing an `insane` booby-trapping by Hamas of homes abanadoned by residents.

With Israeli officials talking of Operation Cast Lead moving towards `an endgame` it became clear diplomatic talks no longer envisaged a fully-fledged international force. The main hope for an end to the carnage rests with the prospect of an internationally-underwritten deal between Israel, Egypt and the moderate-led Palestinian Authority under which Israel would hold fire and probably withdraw troops if Egypt guaranteed to halt the smuggling of weapons into Gaza.

If Hamas continued to fire rockets, the Israeli military would resume operations with what officials envisage would be less criticism. Matan Vilnai, deputy Defence Minister, said the operation could be `close` to ending. Mark Regev, Mr Olmert`s spokesman, said the cabinet decided to `continue the military pressure on Hamas in parallel with diplomatic discussions`.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch called on Israel to refrain from using white-phosphorus munitions in densely populated areas, saying it could badly burn people. And a Norwegian doctor in Gaza City, Mads Gilbert, said there was `clear evidence` that Israel was using `a new type of very high explosive`, which caused more severe injuries and carried a cancer risk. The military said its weapons all conformed with international law.


Obama interview President-elect pledges action

Barack Obama pledged yesterday to have a specialised Middle East team ready to `engage with all the actors` in the search for a `fair and just` peace settlement from day one of his presidency.

In his most detailed comments since the beginning of Israel`s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza on 27 December, the President-elect said he would be ready with `the best possible people who are going to be immediately engaged in the Middle East as a whole.`

In an interview on ABC News, he responded to criticism that his silence as the civilian casualty toll mounted in Gaza was viewed in the Arab world as callous. `When you see civilians, whether Palestinian or Israeli, harmed, under hardship, it`s heartbreaking. And obviously what that does is it makes me much more determined to try to break a deadlock that has gone on for decades now.`

Noting that the Islamist movements of Hamas in Gaza and Hizbollah in Lebanon were supported by Iran, Mr Obama also confirmed his administration which takes office on 20 January, would `have to take a new approach` of engagement regarding Iran.

He acknowledged Iran would be `one of our biggest challenges` because Tehran was `pursuing a nuclear weapon that could potentially trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East`.

He said he would send a signal `that we respect the aspirations of the Iranian people, but that we also have certain expectations in terms of how a international actor behaves.`




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