Gaza rockets, Israeli strikes dim chance of truce

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Palestinian militants, armed with deadlier missiles than ever before, kept up rocket assaults against Israel on Tuesday, despite relentless air attacks against Gaza's Hamas rulers and unwelcome word from Egypt that it would not bail them out.

More than 370 Palestinians have died since the Israeli air onslaught against Gaza's Islamic Hamas rulers began Saturday, shortly after a rocky, six-month truce expired. Most were members of Hamas security forces but at least 64 were civilians, according to U.N. figures. Among those killed were two sisters, aged 4 and 11, who perished in an airstrike on a rocket squad in northern Gaza on Tuesday.

With Israeli ground troops massed along the Gaza border, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Tuesday that airstrikes are just the "the first of several" phases of attack that have been approved, a spokesman said. The comments, along with new threats from Hamas, signaled a new truce was unlikely.

Israeli warplanes smashed a Hamas government complex, security installations and the home of a top militant commander. During brief lulls between airstrikes, Gazans tentatively ventured into the streets to buy goods and collect belongings from homes they had abandoned after Israel's aerial onslaught began Saturday.

Rasha Khaldeh, 22, from the central Gaza town of Deir al-Balah, said she dared go no further than down the block to look for food.

"We just don't know what they are going to shell next. It's not safe," Khaldeh said.

The campaign has brought a new reality to southern Israel, too, where one-tenth of the country's population of 7 million has suddenly found itself within rocket range. Militants have pressed on with their rocket and mortar assaults, killing three Israeli civilians and a soldier and bringing a widening circle of targets into their sights with an arsenal of more powerful weapons.

The military estimated that close to 700,000 Israelis are now within rocket range, with the battles shifting closer to Israel's heartland. Of the four Israelis killed since the operation began Saturday, all but one were in areas that had not suffered fatalities before. On Tuesday, a Bedouin Arab town became one of the new targets.

"It's very scary," said Yaacov Pardida, a 55-year-old resident of Ashdod, southern Israel's largest city, which was hit Monday. "I never imagined that this could happen, that they could reach us here."

By mid-afternoon, gunmen had launched about a dozen rockets and mortars, down from 80 a day earlier, the Israeli military said. But the number of firings have fluctuated sharply throughout the day, and that number could dramatically rise by day's end.

In the 72 hours since the offensive began, militants have fired off more than 250 rockets and mortars all told, they added.

"Zionists, wait for more from the resistance," Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan wrote in a text message to reporters, referring to militants' armed struggle against Israel.

The offensive comes on top of an Israeli blockade of Gaza that has largely kept all but essential goods from entering the coastal territory since Hamas violently seized control June 2007 from forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

At the United Nations on Monday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon demanded an immediate cease-fire and urged Mideast and world leaders to do more to help end the Israeli-Hamas conflict and promote political dialogue.

He also urged urged Arab foreign ministers, who are holding an emergency meeting in Cairo on Wednesday, "to act swiftly and decisively to bring an early end to this impasse."

Egypt, which has been blockading Gaza from its southern end, has come under pressure from the rest of the Arab world to reopen its border with the territory because of the Israeli campaign. Egypt has pried open the border to let in some of Gaza's wounded and to allow some humanitarian supplies to enter the territory. But it quickly sealed the border when Gazans tried to push through forcefully.

In a televised speech Tuesday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak responded to critics, including the leader of the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, who have accused him of collaborating with Israel.

"We tell anybody who seeks political profits on the account of the Palestinian people: The Palestinian blood is not cheap," he said, describing such comments as "exploiting the blood of the Palestinians."

Mubarak said his country would not throw open the border crossing unless Abbas regains control of the border post. Mubarak has been rattled by the presence of a neighboring Islamic ministate in Gaza, fearing it would fuel more Islamic dissidence in Egypt.

Abbas has been in peace talks with Israel over the past year. While there have been no signs of an imminent deal, Israel has made it clear that no future accord could be implemented as long as Hamas is in power in Gaza.

Warplanes launched their bruising offensive after Hamas defied Israel's warnings that it would not stand for the rocket barrages on southern Israel that resumed nearly two months ago, toward the end of a recently expired truce.

Fires blazed across the Gaza Strip's main city, Gaza City, where five government buildings were badly damaged in air attacks Tuesday. Rescue workers said 40 people were injured when warplanes dropped more than a dozen bombs on the government compound. It wasn't clear whether anyone was buried under the debris.

Residents of nearby buildings had fled the area, anticipating the compound would be hit. During lulls between air strikes Tuesday, some of them returned to retrieve belongings or stock up on dwindling supplies of food.

Residents reported food shortages in some areas. Vendors were afraid to open their shops and distributors refused to ship new supplies, fearing for their safety on Gaza's roads. Farmers stayed home.

Israel's air force initially hammered security facilities, then broadened to weapons-making and storage facilities, the homes of militant field operatives, and government buildings that are the symbols of Hamas' power.

The initial wave of airstrikes took Gaza by surprise, targeting militants and Hamas security forces at key installations, often located in the midst of tiny Gaza's densely populated towns and cities.

But the government buildings targeted later were empty, as Gazans became fearful of venturing out into the streets. For Ziad Koraz, whose nearby home was damaged in the attack on the government compound Tuesday, that violence gratuitously put Gaza civilians at risk.

"More than 17 missiles were directed at an empty government compound, without regard for civilians who lived nearby," Koraz said. "If someone committed a crime, they should go after him, not after an entire nation."

Israel has allowed a trickle of aid through its cargo crossings with Gaza despite the military campaign, agreeing to allow 100 trucks in on Tuesday, defense officials said. Jordan, the Red Cross and the World Health Organization were also preparing to send medical supplies.

Israel's navy on Tuesday turned back a boat of pro-Palestinian protesters who had hoped to enter Gaza to demonstrate against the Israeli blockade.

The Israeli side of the border area was declared a closed military zone on Monday, drawing a thick fog over operations in the area. But with thousands of ground troops, backed by tanks and artillery, massed on the border, and the air force knocking off target after target, the big question looming over the operation was whether it would expand to include a land invasion.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak reiterated that the operation would "expand as needed ... to restore tranquility to (Israel's) south and deliver a blow to Hamas so the rocket fire and other operations against the citizens and soldiers of Israel stop."

Short of reoccupying Gaza, however, it was unlikely any amount of Israeli firepower could permanently stop rocket attacks. Past operations all failed to do so, and the crude rockets, which fly in the air for just a few seconds, have continued to elude Israel's high-tech military.

During the six-month truce that expired Dec. 19, gunmen fired 360 rockets and mortars, the vast majority in the agreement's waning weeks, the military said. In the year before it took hold, more than 4,300 projectiles were fired, it added.

Over the years, militants have improved the aim and range of the rockets. On Monday, a missile crashed into a bus stop in Ashdod, a city of 200,000 that is 23 miles (37 kilometers) from Gaza and only 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Israel's Tel Aviv heartland.