Warplanes pounded Gaza for a third day on Monday as tanks stood by to join Israel’s “all-out” war on Hamas that has killed at least 345 people and prompted deadly rocket fire from the Palestinian enclave.
As it massed troops along the territory’s border, Israel got a strong boost from Washington, which blamed the Gaza Strip’s Islamist rulers.
“In order for the violence to stop, Hamas must stop firing rockets into Israel and agree to respect a sustainable and durable ceasefire,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
But anger over the mammoth bombing campaign spiralled in the Muslim world, and efforts to hold talks between Syria and Israel were suspended because of the air assault. Israel made it clear the military offensive was just beginning and vowed it would destroy every building used by Hamas in the impoverished and overcrowded sliver of coastal land.
With Israeli tanks idling just metres away from Gaza, the army declared the area a closed military zone — a move that in the past has often been followed by ground operations.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who has warned of a possible ground attack, declared Israel was in “an all-out war with Hamas and its proxies,” but stressed that everything would be done to spare civilians. At least 57 civilians, including 21 children, have been killed as a result of the Israeli bombardment, a UN spokesman said.
In all, the air onslaught, unleashed on Saturday after increased rocket and mortar fire from Gaza, has killed at least 345 Palestinians and wounded more than 1,550 others, Gaza medics said.
“The goal of the operation is to topple Hamas,” Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon said on Monday in televised comments. Israel insists operations will go on as long as necessary.
“After this operation there will not be a single Hamas building left standing in Gaza, and we plan to change the rules of the game,” said armed forces deputy chief of staff Brigadier General Dan Harel, quoted by YNet News. Hamas militants remained defiant, firing about 40 rockets and mortar rounds into Israel on Monday.
One projectile slammed into a construction site in the southern city of Ashkelon some 13 km north of the Gaza border, killing an Israeli Arab and wounding eight more people.
The White House said Monday that Israel was not looking to "retake" the Gaza Strip through its military operations against Hamas and was only acting to defend its citizens.
“They are taking the steps that they feel are necessary to deal with the terrorist threat,” said spokesman Gordon Johndroe, who cited public Israeli “statements saying that they don’t want to retake Gaza, that they simply want to protect their people.”
Western-backed Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, whose forces were routed from Gaza when Hamas seized the territory in June 2007, implored the international community to help end the violence.
“We call on the entire world to work to put an immediate stop to this aggression,” he said.
Amid international concern over the humanitarian situation in the aid-dependent territory of 1.5 million, Israel allowed 80 truckloads of food and medicine into the enclave it has kept virtually sealed since the Hamas takeover.
In another development, Turkey, one of Israel’s leading allies in the Muslim world, announced that it was ending efforts to organise peace talks between Israel and Syria. “The continuation of the talks under these conditions is naturally impossible,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan told reporters after talks with his Egyptian counterpart Ahmed Abul Gheit.
Parliament in Jordan — one of two Arab states to have signed a peace treaty with Israel — demanded that the government “reconsider” relations with the Jewish state.
Hamas, branded a terror group by Israel and the West, has lashed out at the world for not doing enough to end the blitz.
Israel is “committing a holocaust as the whole world watches and doesn’t lift a finger to stop it,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum told reporters.