Israeli Assault Targets Symbols of Hamas Power

By: AP
By: AP
Israel

Palestinian gunmen from the militant wing of the Islamic group Hamas, carry equipment as they leave their position at the beginning of a cease fire near the border with Israel, east of Gaza City, Thursday, June 19, 2008. Guns went quiet as a six-month truce between Israel and Gaza Strip militants took effect early Thursday, marred only by widespread skepticism about its ability to hold. The cease-fire, which Egypt labored for months to conclude, aims to bring an end to a year of fighting that has killed seven Israelis and more than 400 Palestinians many of them civilians since the Islamic militant group Hamas wrested control of Gaza a year ago. (AP Photo/Wissam Nassar, MaanImages)

GAZA CITY, Gaza StripIsrael's air force obliterated symbols of Hamas power on the third day of its overwhelming assault on Gaza on Monday, striking a house next to the Hamas premier's home, devastating a security compound and flattening a five-story building at a university closely linked to the Islamic group.

The three-day death toll rose to 315, including seven children under the age of 15 who were killed in two separate strikes late Sunday and Monday, medics said. Israel launched the deadliest attack against Palestinians in decades on Saturday in retaliation for rocket fire aimed at civilians in southern Israeli towns.

Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak told Israel's parliament in a special session that Israel was not fighting the residents of Gaza "but we have a war to the bitter end against Hamas and its branches."

The strikes appear to have gravely damaged Hamas' ability to launch rockets but a medium-range rocket fired at the Israeli city of Ashkelon killed a man there Monday and wounded several others. It was the second fatality in Israel since the beginning of the offensive and the first person ever to be killed by a rocket in Ashkelon, a city of 120,000.

Six people have been killed in Israel in rocket attacks from Gaza since the beginning of the year, according to Israel's Foreign Ministry. On Sunday, Hamas missiles struck for the first time near the city of Ashdod, twice as far from Gaza as Ashkelon and only 25 miles from Israel's heart in Tel Aviv.

At first light Monday, strong winds blew black smoke from the bombed sites in Gaza City over deserted streets. The air hummed with the buzz of pilotless drones and the roar of jets, punctuated by the explosions of new airstrikes.

A Hamas police spokesman, Ehab Ghussein, said 180 members of the Hamas security forces were among the dead. The United Nations agency in charge of Palestinian refugees said at least 51 of the dead were civilians. A rise in civilian casualties could intensify international pressure on Israel to abort the offensive.

Israel's intense bombings — more than 300 airstrikes since midday Saturday — wreaked unprecedented destruction in Gaza, reducing buildings to rubble. The military said naval vessels also bombarded targets from the sea.

Shlomo Brom, a former senior Israeli military official, said it was the deadliest force ever used in decades of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, who heads a moderate government in the West Bank and is holding peace talks with Israel, issued his strongest condemnation yet of the operation, calling it a "sweeping Israeli aggression against Gaza" and saying he would consult with his bitter rivals in Hamas in an effort to end it.

One strike destroyed a five-story building in the women's wing at Islamic University, one of the most prominent Hamas symbols. Another attack ravaged a compound controlled by Preventive Security, one of the group's chief security arms, and a third destroyed a house next to the residence of Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister.

Like other Hamas leaders, Haniyeh is in hiding.

Late on Sunday, Israeli aircraft attacked a building in the Jebaliya refugee camp next to Gaza City, killing a woman, a toddler and three young teenage girls, Gaza Health Ministry official Dr. Moaiya Hassanain said.

In the southern town of Rafah, a toddler and his two teenage brothers were killed in an airstrike aimed at a Hamas commander, Hassanain said. In Gaza City, another attack killed a man and his wife.

In the most dramatic attacks Sunday, warplanes struck dozens of smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border, cutting off a lifeline that had supplied Hamas with weapons and Gaza with commercial goods. The influx of goods helped Hamas defy an 18-month blockade of Gaza by Israel and Egypt and was key to propping up its rule.

Gaza's nine hospitals were overwhelmed. Hassanain, who keeps a record for the Gaza Health Ministry, said more than 1,400 were wounded over two days of fighting and casualties were now being taken to private clinics and even homes.

Abdel Hafez, a 55-year-old history teacher, waited outside a Gaza City bakery to buy bread, one of the few people visible outdoors. He said he was not a Hamas supporter but believed the strikes would only increase support for the group.

"Each strike, each drop of blood are giving Hamas more fuel to continue," he said.

In Jerusalem, Israel's Cabinet approved a call-up of 6,500 reserve soldiers Sunday in apparent preparation for a ground offensive. The final decision to call up more reserves has yet to be made by the defense minister, Ehud Barak, and the Cabinet decision could be a pressure tactic.

Israel has doubled the number of troops on the Gaza border since Saturday and deployed an artillery battery. Several hundred reservists have already been summoned to join their units but no full combat formations have been mobilized so far.

Military experts said Israel would need at least 10,000 soldiers for a full-scale invasion.

Since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 after a 38-year military occupation, Israeli forces have repeatedly returned to the territory to hunt militants firing rockets at Israeli towns. But it has shied away from retaking the entire strip for fear of getting bogged down in urban warfare.

The assault has sparked diplomatic fallout.

Syria decided to suspend indirect peace talks with Israel, begun earlier this year. The United Nations Security Council called on both sides to halt the fighting and asked Israel to allow humanitarian supplies into Gaza. Israel opened one of Gaza's border crossings Monday and about 40 trucks had entered with food and medical supplies by mid-day, military spokesman Peter Lerner said.

The prime minister of Turkey, one of the few Muslim countries to have relations with Israel, called the air assault a "crime against humanity" and French President Nicolas Sarkozy condemned "the provocations that led to this situation as well as the disproportionate use of force."

The carnage has inflamed Arab and Muslim public opinion, setting off street protests in Arab communities in Israel and the West Bank, across the Arab world and in some European cities. On Monday, a Palestinian stabbed and wounded four Israelis in a West Bank settlement before he was shot and wounded. It was not immediately clear if the attack was directly connected to the events in Gaza.


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