51 killed as Israel presses on with Gaza assault

GAZA CITY (AFP) — Israel pounded Gaza with fresh air strikes Sunday as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed the massive operation will go on — despite so far failing to win the release of a soldier seized two weeks ago.

Fifty-one Palestinians and an Israeli soldier have been killed since Israel launched its operation last Wednesday, pouring tanks and troops into the Gaza Strip and moving into land evacuated in September after a 38-year occupation.

On Sunday afternoon, one bystander was killed and seven Palestinians wounded when an Israeli aircraft fired two rockets at a car carrying three members of the armed wing of the ruling Hamas Party, near the town of Rafah.

Despite the mounting death toll, Israel has rejected a call by Hamas Premier Ismail Haniyeh for a mutual ceasefire, vowing no let-up until Palestinian rocket attacks cease and the teenage soldier is returned safe and sound.

“This is a war which can not be given a timetable,” Olmert told ministers at the weekly Cabinet meeting. “We will continue managing this crisis with cool and patience… We cannot sit and not react to the Qassam rocket fire.” Defence Minister Amir Peretz conceded during the meeting that “so far there has been no success, but we require patience and restraint.”

“The army’s action in the Gaza Strip creates reactions and situations that will help bring about the release of the kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit,” added the defence minister, who has been publicly criticised over the crisis.

Palestinian fighters fired two rockets into Israel’s southern desert town of Sderot, where Peretz lives, lightly wounding one man.

The armed wing of Hamas — one of three groups behind the June 25 attack on an army outpost in which Shalit was captured and two other soldiers killed — claimed four rocket attacks.

Hamas, which has seen its government offices struck by Israeli missiles in air strikes since Shalit was captured, has warned that Israel’s military assault is complicating the fate of the corporal, who it said was being well looked-after.

The beleaguered Haniyeh on Saturday stressed that his government was determined to solve the problem through diplomatic channels in a “peaceful” manner, calling on Israel to halt its military operations.

Israel, however, has vowed to use everything in its power to increase the pressure on the Hamas-led government to free the 19-year-old and stop rocket attacks that have sowed panic among Israelis living near Gaza.

The commander of the southern region, General Yoav Galant insisted Saturday that “Operation Summer Rain” would deter Palestinian fighters.

“They will think twice before launching attacks when they see in a week, a month or two months from now that hundreds of terrorists have been killed.” In total, fighters have fired 30 makeshift rockets towards Israel since the army began a vast operation in the northern Gaza Strip late Wednesday.

Israeli ground troops on Saturday shifted the focus of their Gaza campaign, leaving the north in favour of the eastern frontier of the narrow Mediterranean territory — one of the most densely populated regions on earth.

Tanks advanced one kilometre to the eastern outskirts of Gaza City where deadly clashes broke out Saturday. They took up positions on open farmland and in industrial areas to search for explosives and tunnels.

Witnesses said troops remained in their positions early Sunday and reported heavy tank shelling in eastern and northern Gaza in the morning following the latest Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel.

Overnight, Israeli aircraft attacked a Fateh building in the south that the army said was used to direct “terror activity”. They also targeted a bridge in the north, repeatedly attacked in recent days, and armed Palestinian cells.

Sombre funerals took place Sunday for three members of a Palestinian family — a six-year-old girl, her 20-year-old brother and their mother — who were killed in an air strike late Saturday.

The attack, which the Israeli army says targeted and hit a group of fighters, was likely to prove a rallying cry for angry Palestinians and further escalate tensions.

An opinion poll published on Sunday revealed that a large majority of Palestinians support the continued abduction of Israeli soldiers, given the current circumstances, and that most approved the June 25 commando operation that captured Shalit.

As the violence dragged on amid fears of basic shortages and with petrol stations still closed in Gaza City, UN chief Kofi Annan demanded immediate access for UN workers and humanitarian relief supplies to Gaza.

He called for an immediate halt to Israel’s “disproportionate use of force” and for fighters to release Shalit.

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