- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 28, 2008

TEL AVIV | Israel launched a massive air assault on Hamas targets throughout the Gaza Strip in retaliation for a spate of rocket attacks, killing at least 230 Palestinians and wounding hundreds more in the deadliest day of fighting in decades.

The surprise onslaught - dubbed “Cast Lead” by the army - produced scenes of carnage in Gaza, hitting security sites ranging from a police graduation ceremony to a Hamas intelligence headquarters to a training base in an abandoned Jewish settlement. Israeli officials said Saturday the barrage was just the beginning.

Most of the casualties were security forces, but Palestinian officials said at least 15 civilians were among the dead. More than 400 people were wounded.

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In Gaza City’s main security compound, bodies of more than a dozen uniformed Hamas police lay on the ground. Civilians rushed wounded people in cars and vans to hospitals because there weren’t enough ambulances to transport all the dead and wounded, the Associated Press reported.

The unprecedented assault sparked protests and condemnations throughout the Arab world, and many of Israel’s Western allies urged restraint, though the U.S. blamed Hamas for the fighting.

The U.N. Security Council went into emergency consultations late Saturday to discuss a Libyan call for an immediate halt to the Israeli air strikes.

“Our main objective is an immediate cease-fire,” said Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya’s deputy ambassador to the U.N., whose country is the lone Arab member of the council. “We intend to get a [nonbinding] presidential statement [from the 15-member council],” Mr. Dabbashi told Agence France-Presse. “There has to be a cessation of hostilities as soon as possible.”

Ryad Mansour, the Palestinian observer to the United Nations, echoed that view, describing the Israeli strikes as “a threat to international peace and security … that needs to be stopped immediately.”

But in a letter to the current president of the Security Council, Croatian Ambassador Neven Jurica, Israeli Ambassador Gabriela Shalev argued that her country was acting in self-defense.

“No country would allow continuous rocketing of its civilian population without taking the necessary actions to stop it. Israel expects the understanding and support of the international community to its actions,” she added.

The United States, Israel’s main ally and a veto-wielding member of the Security Council, agreed.

“If Hamas stops firing rockets into Israel, then Israel would not have a need for strikes in Gaza,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters. “What we’ve got to see is Hamas stop firing rockets into Israel.”

The first round of Israeli air strikes began around noon Saturday followed by successive waves of attacks that continued into the early hours Sunday.

Israel warned it might go after Hamas’ leaders, and militants kept pelting Israel with rockets - killing at least one Israeli and wounding six.

Hundreds of Israeli infantry and armored corps troops headed for the Gaza border in preparation for a possible ground invasion, military officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity under army guidelines, the AP reported.

“We don’t rejoice in battle, but neither will we be deterred from it,” said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. “The operation in the Gaza Strip is designed, first and foremost, to bring about an improvement in the security reality for the residents of the south of the country. This is liable to take time.”

Despite the blitz, Hamas spokesmen in Gaza were defiant and vowed to hit back. Palestinian militants sent at least 45 rockets into southern Israel in response, leaving one Israeli civilian dead and several injured.

Hamas’ alliance with Iran means the offensive is likely to have a broader political fallout in the region and could be the first Middle East crisis for the incoming Obama administration. The attacks also raise the possibility of desperate Gazans streaming over the border with Egypt and the threat of Iranian-backed Hezbollah opening up a second front on the border with Lebanon.

The fierce attack also threatened to undermine the continuation of the U.S.-backed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, as well as the Turkish-mediated indirect negotiations between Israel and Syria.

The flare-up of fighting comes a week after the expiration of a six-month cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. In the interim, Israel has absorbed dozens of rocket attacks on cities and towns near Gaza with limited reprisals, spurring the impression that Hamas had gained the upper hand against Israel.

With parliamentary elections set for Feb. 10 and calls for action spanning Israel’s political spectrum, the Israeli government had little maneuvering room to delay a major retaliation.

Many see Hamas’ attacks last week as an effort to use force to broker an improved cease-fire agreement with Israel. The Islamic militants blamed Israel for the rupture in the calm, complaining that Israel reneged on a commitment to open the borders into the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli army said that more than 50 combat jets and helicopters ran more than 170 sorties against about 60 Palestinian targets around Gaza, a coastal enclave with 1.6 million Palestinians.

The Palestinian cities and towns that were hit included Beit Hanoun in the north, Gaza City along the coast and Rafah at the border with Egypt. In Israel, rockets landed in Netivot, Sderot and the city of Ashkelon.

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