GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli tanks, planes and ground forces pounded Gaza on Monday and the defense minister said the offensive against Hamas militants in the Palestinian enclave would go on until Israel was safe.
International efforts to secure a ceasefire moved ahead with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Middle East special envoy Tony Blair visiting the region, but they seemed able to offer little beyond words.
The death toll in besieged Gaza rose on Monday to at least 530 people. Victims included three Palestinian children and their mother when a tank shell hit their home in Gaza City and seven members of another family were killed in a refugee camp.
The Israeli army said “many dozens” of Islamist fighters had been killed since ground troops went in on Saturday in a stated attempt to end rocket fire by Hamas into southern Israel.
“Hamas has so far sustained a very heavy blow from us, but we have yet to achieve our objective and therefore the operation continues,” Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said.
A Hamas official said a delegation from the Islamist group would head for talks in Egypt, which has also opened contacts to achieve a ceasefire. But senior Hamas political leader Mahmoud Zahar urged Hamas forces to fight on “in the name of God.”
“They legalized for us knocking down their synagogues when they hit our mosques, they legalized for us knocking down their schools when they hit our schools,” he said in a speech broadcast in Gaza.
FAMILIES SEEK REFUGE
Gunbattles intensified in eastern Gaza City and in the north of the strip on Monday. Militants fired mortars and grenades and detonated mines, and claimed to have hit a troop carrier.
They were also trying to lure Israeli soldiers into built-up areas, witnesses said.
A military spokeswoman said the air force bombed more than 30 targets, including homes of Hamas members used as weapons depots, tunnels and a suspected anti-aircraft rocket launcher.
Israel launched its offensive with an air blitz on December 27 to curtail the rocket attacks from Hamas-ruled Gaza before an Israeli national election next month.
Four Israelis have been killed by salvoes fired into Israel since the offensive began. An Israeli soldier was killed in fighting on Sunday and 48 have been wounded since the invasion.
Israel’s advances into Gaza have carved the 40-km long coastal territory, home to 1.5 million people, into two zones and forces have surrounded its largest urban area, Gaza City
Bombs on Monday hit a hospital morgue where a family were mourning a paramedic killed in an airstrike on Sunday. Three people were killed and 17 wounded, medical workers said.
“We were sitting in the mourning tent when suddenly they bombed us, we ran to rush the casualties to hospitals but they bombed again,” Abdel-Dayem told Reuters.
Gaza residents were in dire need of food, medical supplies and other aid but the hostilities were hampering relief efforts, aid agencies said.
At a house at the Beach refugee camp, Umm Ala Mrad sat on a mattress surrounded by her nine children. An Israeli warship intermittently fired shells, hitting buildings by the shore.
“Every time a shell is fired from the sea I rush to carry my children out of the house. But how and what should I do, who should I carry first and who should I leave for a next go,” she asked a reporter.
Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, heading an EU peace mission, could offer her little comfort. “We do not have a specific plan for a ceasefire because the ceasefire as such much be concluded by the involved parties,” he said in Jerusalem.
“We can help to it, we can mediate, we can assist a solution but it’s not up to us to propose the conditions.”
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, envoy for a major powers group called the Quartet, said a ceasefire was a priority.
“We are doing everything we possibly can to bring about an end to a situation of immense suffering and deprivation,” he said after meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.
The Quartet wanted an immediate ceasefire respected by all sides and to get humanitarian aid flowing into Gaza, Blair said.
Sarkozy said he “condemned this offensive” for distancing chances for peace and making it harder to get aid to Palestinians in Gaza. He met Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and will head for meetings in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
The United States, Israel’s closest ally, has looked all but sidelined by the pending transfer of its presidency. The Bush administration has supported Israel, saying Hamas must halt rocket fire at Israel for a truce to take shape.
As part of any halt to the fighting, which has led to protests across the world, Israel is seeking international help to bolster security along Gaza’s border with Egypt to prevent Hamas from rebuilding tunnels and rearming.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni rebuffed European proposals for international observers in the Gaza Strip after any ceasefire, pushing instead for teams that will help search out and seal off tunnels that could allow Hamas to rearm.
Hamas called off a six-month truce last month and stepped up attacks on southern Israel, citing Israeli raids and a blockade of the enclave that Israel occupied until 2005.
Global oil prices, meanwhile, jumped to a three-week high on Monday after an Iranian military commander called for an oil boycott over the Israeli offensive.