New Israeli Air Strikes On Gaza

(AP) Israeli warplanes and gunboats blasted more than two dozen Hamas targets Saturday, including weapons storage facilities, training centers and leaders' homes as Israel's offensive against Gaza's Islamic militant rulers entered a second week.

There were tentative signs that the current phase of fighting may be nearing an end. Most of the air strikes targeted empty buildings and abandoned sites, suggesting Israel may be running out of targets.

Ground troops massed on the border, waiting for a signal to invade Gaza, but international cease-fire efforts were also gaining momentum.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is visiting the region next week, and President George W. Bush and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon both spoke in favor of an internationally monitored truce.

Israel launched the offensive on Dec. 27 in response to intensifying rocket fire by Hamas militants in Gaza. The operation has killed more than 430 Palestinians, including dozens of civilians, according to Palestinian and U.N. counts. Four Israelis have also been killed, and rocket attacks on southern Israel persist.

In the latest attacks, the Israeli army struck the homes of two Hamas operatives, saying the buildings were used to store weapons and plan attacks. Hamas outposts, training camps and rocket launching sites also were targeted, it said.

Early Saturday, it dropped leaflets in downtown Gaza City ordering people off the streets.

Later in the day, several air strikes struck the city, killing a night watchman at a Gaza City school. Four people, including a midlevel Hamas commander, died of wounds sustained earlier, Gaza health officials said.

Palestinian militants fired six rockets into southern Israel, causing no injuries. One rocket struck a house in the city of Ashkelon, police said.

The Israeli air strikes have badly damaged Gaza's infrastructure, knocking out power and water in many areas and raising concerns of a looming humanitarian disaster.

Israel briefly opened its border Friday to allow nearly 300 Palestinians with foreign passports to flee the besieged area. The evacuees told of crippling shortages of water, electricity and medicine.

Maxwell Gaylard, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinians Territories, said some 2,000 people have been wounded in the past week and a "significant number" of the dead were women and children. "There is a critical emergency right now in the Gaza Strip," he said.

Israel denies there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and has increased its shipments of goods into Gaza. It says it has confined its attacks to militants while trying to prevent civilian casualties.

While ground troops remained poised to enter Gaza, Israel also has left the door open to a diplomatic solution, saying it would accept a cease-fire if it is enforced by international monitors.

This latest round of violence erupted after the expiration of a six-month cease-fire that was repeatedly marred by sporadic rocket attacks on Israel.

Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, speaking from Damascus, Syria, warned that any ground assault would lead Israel to "a black destiny of dead and wounded." He asserted that the group had sustained minimal losses.

He did, however, say Hamas was "ready to cooperate with any effort leading to an end to the Israeli offensive against Gaza, lifting the siege and opening all crossings."

Israel's call for international monitors appeared to be gaining steam.

At the United Nations, Ban urged world leaders to intensify efforts to achieve an immediate cease-fire that includes monitors to enforce the truce and possibly protect Palestinian civilians.

In Washington, Bush on Friday branded the rocket fire an "act of terror" and outlined his own condition for a cease-fire in Gaza, saying no peace deal would be acceptable without monitoring to halt the flow of smuggled weapons to terrorist groups.

"The United States is leading diplomatic efforts to achieve a meaningful cease-fire that is fully respected," Bush said in his weekly radio address.

But with time running out on the Bush presidency, the crisis in Gaza is likely to carry over to President-elect Barack Obama. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice continued telephone diplomacy to arrange a truce, but said she had no plans to make an emergency visit to the region.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and several Arab foreign ministers were flying to New York over the weekend to urge the U.N. Security Council to adopt an Arab draft resolution that would condemn Israel and demand a halt to its bombing campaign in Gaza.

Abbas, whose forces in Gaza were ousted by Hamas in June 2007, still claims authority over the area.

The council is expected to discuss the draft resolution on Monday. But the United States said the draft is "unacceptable" and "unbalanced" because it makes no mention of halting the Hamas rocket attacks.

© MMIX The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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