- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2008

TEL AVIV | The threat of an Israeli invasion of the Islamist-ruled Gaza Strip loomed Sunday, with the call up of 6,500 reservists during the second day of an air offensive that sparked global protests and the deepest penetration yet by Palestinian rockets into southern Israel.

Israeli bombers targeted 40 smuggling tunnels linking the Gaza Strip to Egypt, while Palestinian demonstrators clashed with Egyptian border police in an attempt to flee the bombing.

The death toll approached 300 and demonstrations erupted throughout the Muslim world.

The Syrian government broke off indirect peace talks started earlier this year with Israel. A rocket fired from Gaza hit near the port city of Ashdod 18 miles from the border, the deepest penetration yet by Palestinian missiles.

The severity of the attack, the worst in decades, threatened to saddle the incoming Obama administration with its first foreign-policy crisis.

Israel’s Cabinet approved the call-up of reservists, and sent armored divisions and infantry to the Gaza border. The move hinted at a possible ground invasion to complement air sorties that numbered about 300 in the past two days.

Israel’s government reiterated that its Operation Cast Lead would continue until there’s a halt to rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled enclave.

“In the entire history of Israel, I don’t remember any war more pointless than the one Hamas started,” said Israeli President Shimon Peres. He blamed Hamas for the rocket salvos that preceded Israel’s weekend offensive.

“This is a justified operation,” Mr. Peres said.

The Islamist Hamas movement accused Israel of “committing a holocaust as the whole world watches and doesn’t lift a finger to stop it.”

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said the movement “reserves the right to hit back at this aggression with martyr operations,” a reference to suicide bombings inside Israel, according to Agence France-Presse.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the campaign was launched “in order to regain a normal life for the citizens in the south, who have suffered for many years from incessant rocket, mortar and terror attacks.”

Anti-Israeli protests extended to Turkey, one of the few Muslim nations with formal ties to Israel, where the prime minister called the air offensive a “crime against humanity.”

Though some leaders in Israel want a ground invasion to topple the Hamas regime, which seized control in Gaza a year and a half ago, the costs of regime change will be high in terms of casualty rates and in terms of taking care of 1.6 million impoverished Gazans.

The tunnels targeted by Israel have allowed commercial goods and weapons to circumvent an 18-month blockade of Gaza by Israel and Egypt.

The air offensive threatened to create a humanitarian disaster in a territory already saddled with shortages of food, medicine and other supplies.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak authorized the transfer of more than 100 truckloads of aid into Gaza, 10 ambulances and fuel donated by Turkey, Jordan and international organizations, his office said in a statement.

The Palestinian death toll topped 290, according to one estimate cited by the Associated Press.

Clouding the operation from the Israeli side was the bitter memory of the army’s inability to score a clear victory against Hezbollah with a brief invasion of southern Lebanon in 2006.

The military and the government were criticized at the time for not clearly defining the goals of the war and hesitating to introduce ground forces to back up gains made from the air.

But Israelis weren’t the only ones making the comparison.

In a televised address, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah suggested that Hamas could repeat his group’s success in the summer of 2006.

“What is happening today is a Palestinian copy,” he said. “This is exactly what happened with us. The battle is the same battle. And the result, God willing, is the same result.”

In Syria, protesters burned Israeli and American flags as thousands demonstrated in central Damascus.

Demonstrators also burned Israeli flags in the Jordanian capital, Amman, where hundreds of people led by Islamist lawmakers gathered to demand the closure of the Israeli Embassy.

Thousands of demonstrators rallied in Cairo and Alexandria, as well as Assiut, in southern Egypt.

Egypt and Jordan are two Arab countries that have diplomatic relations with Israel.

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