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Israel intensifies strikes on Gaza

world Updated: Dec 29, 2008 13:33 IST pounded Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip from the air on Sunday for a second day and prepared for a possible invasion of the territory after killing nearly 290 Palestinians in the opening rounds of a powerful offensive.

Israel said the campaign that began on Saturday was a response to almost daily rocket and mortar fire that intensified after Hamas ended a six-month ceasefire a week ago.

Despite the air attacks, militants fired some 80 rockets into Israel, emergency services said. In one of the longest-reaching salvoes, two rockets struck near Ashdod, a main port 30 km from Gaza, causing no casualties.

Israeli tanks deployed on the edge of the Gaza Strip, poised to enter the densely populated enclave of 1.5 million Palestinians. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s cabinet approved a call-up of 6,500 reservists, a government official said.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who hopes to become prime minister after elections next month, appeared to rule out a large-scale invasion aimed at restoring Israeli control of the blockaded territory once dotted with Jewish settlements.

“Our goal is not to reoccupy Gaza Strip,” she said on NBC’s Meet the Press programme. Asked on Fox News if Israel was out to topple Gaza’s Hamas rulers, Livni replied: “Not now.”

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Olmert, said Israel would press on with the campaign “until we have a new security environment in the south, when the population there will no longer live in terror and in fear of constant rocket barrages”.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum urged Palestinian groups to use “all available means, including martyrdom operations” — a reference to suicide bombings in Israel — to “protect the Palestinian people”.

Keeping pressure on Hamas after bombing runs that turned Saturday into one of the bloodiest days for Palestinians in 60 years of conflict, Israeli aircraft flattened the group’s main security compound in Gaza, killing at least four security men.

Israel expanded its air campaign to the southern Gaza Strip, bombing some 40 smuggling tunnels running under the border with Egypt, part of a network that is lifeline to the outside world.

Under clear morning skies, an Israeli air strike destroyed the headquarters of Hamas’s al-Aqsa television stations, which continued broadcasting from an unknown location. Israeli aircraft also attacked a training facility for Hamas fighters.

A militant was killed in an air strike in the northern Gaza Strip.

Palestinians cross into Egypt

Egyptian police fired in the air near the Gaza border town of Rafah on Sunday to prevent Palestinians entering Egypt after Israel launched air strikes to destroy tunnels along the tense frontier. Some Palestinians managed to climb over the border wall into Egypt, with riot police reinforcements being sent to the frontier on Sunday.