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Israel pushes ahead as Gaza assault enters day 5

Israeli leaders decided to reject an immediate 48-hour pause in fighting and push ahead with the devastating air offensive against Hamas, sending jets and assault helicopters to pound targets on Wednesday through pouring rain as the Gaza Strip entered its fifth day of battle.

world Updated: Dec 31, 2008 15:05 IST

Israeli leaders decided to reject an immediate 48-hour pause in fighting and push ahead with the devastating air offensive against Hamas, sending jets and assault helicopters to pound targets on Wednesday through pouring rain as the Gaza Strip entered its fifth day of battle.

Israel is facing growing international pressure to halt the assault, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert discussed a cease-fire proposal _ floated by France's foreign minister _ with his foreign and defense ministers overnight. The meeting ended with a decision to continue operations, according to government officials, and a top forum of Cabinet ministers entrusted with security matters will discuss the continuation of the offensive on Wednesday. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting's contents were classified.

The scale of destruction in Gaza and a death toll that Gaza officials now put at 374 has sparked growing diplomatic action. Calls for an immediate cease-fire have come from the European Union, which urged a truce on Tuesday, and from the Quartet of world powers trying to promote Mideast peace _ the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia. President George W Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also called leaders in the Middle East to press for a durable solution.

The moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, is set to meet later Wednesday with Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Jordan to discuss a cease-fire. Abbas will also meet with Jordan's King Abdallah II.

Israel has been massing troops and armor along the Gaza border in an indication the air campaign could morph into a ground operation if no cease-fire is reached. The government approved a plan to call up another 2,500 reserve soldiers late Tuesday, following a decision earlier this week to authorize a call-up of 6,700 soldiers. The call-up has yet to be carried out.

Gaza militants kept up their fire and continued to expand their range. Two missiles hit on Wednesday in and around the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, 28 miles (45 kilometers) away from Gaza, causing no casualties. The city was targeted for the first time on Tuesday, when a missile slammed into an empty kindergarten. More than a tenth of Israel's population is now in range of Hamas rockets, and four Israelis have been killed since the offensive began on Saturday. Early Wednesday, Israeli aircraft pounded smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border, setting off a huge explosion in a fuel tunnel, witnesses said, in another attempt to cut the vital lifeline that supplies Gaza with both commercial goods and weapons for Hamas and other militant groups. Other aircraft hit Hamas positions in Gaza City. No casualties were reported. The military said government buildings were hit, including an office of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

A Palestinian medic was killed and two others wounded when an Israeli missile struck next to their ambulance during a clash east of Gaza City, Palestinians said. The Israeli military said it did not know of the incident.

Powerful airstrikes caused Gaza City's high-rise apartment buildings to sway and showered streets with broken glass and pulverized concrete.

In two phone calls to Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Monday and Tuesday, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner appealed to him to consider a truce to allow time for humanitarian relief supplies to enter Gaza, two senior officials in Barak's office said. Israel has kept one humanitarian crossing open, and Gaza border official Raed Fattouh said Israel informed him that more than 100 aid trucks were due to cross Wednesday, following a similar number on Tuesday.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was expected to travel on Thursday to Paris for talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has put his growing international stature to use in other conflict zones, most recently to help halt fighting between Russia and Georgia in August.

Israeli media reported that Sarkozy would also travel to Jerusalem on Monday for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. A Hamas spokesman said any halt to militant rocket and mortar fire would require an end to Israel's crippling blockade of the Gaza Strip. "If they halt the aggression and the blockade, then Hamas will study these suggestions," said Mushir Masri. Israel imposed the blockade after Hamas violently took over Gaza in June 2007, and fears opening the crossings would allow the group _ which remains officially committed to Israel's destruction _ to strengthen its hold on the territory.

Any cease-fire between Israel and Hamas would face questions about its long-term viability. In the past, Hamas has been unable or unwilling to rein in all the militants, some of whom belong to different factions. Israel has angered the Palestinians by continuing to target Hamas leaders and by maintaining its Gaza blockade.