- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2009

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip | Israel resisted mounting international pressure Wednesday to suspend its devastating air offensive against militants in Hamas-ruled Gaza, sending more troops and tanks to the border as signs of an impending ground invasion multiplied.

A long column of tanks and other army vehicles, two and three abreast, was strung out along an access road to Gaza. Dozens of tanks were parked in a rain-sodden field on the border.

Commanders were moving forward with preparations for a ground assault, said an Israeli defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.

Earlier this week, the government approved the call-up of more than 9,000 reserve soldiers.

Heavy cloud cover that could encumber ground forces was expected to lift Thursday.

The international diplomatic action was set into motion by Israel’s five-day aerial campaign, aimed at snuffing out militant rocket barrages that were striking ominously close to the Israeli heartland.

Gaza officials put the death toll at more than 390 dead and 1,600 wounded. Hamas reported that about 200 uniformed members of its security forces had been killed, and the United Nations said at least 60 Palestinian civilians had died. Israeli defense officials said Hamas’ top military and political leaders had gone underground and had not been touched.

Four Israelis, including three civilians, were killed by militant rocket fire.

The chief of Israel’s internal security services, Yuval Diskin, told Cabinet ministers Wednesday that Hamas’ ability to rule had been “badly impaired.”

Weapons development facilities have been “completely wiped out” and a network of smuggling tunnels that has been Hamas’ lifeline has been badly damaged, a participant in the meeting quoted Mr. Diskin as saying. Israeli navy ships also fired at Hamas positions along the coast.

On Tuesday, France urged Israel to halt its operation for 48 hours. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert discussed the idea with his defense and foreign ministers overnight, but the trio decided to pursue the punishing aerial campaign.

Calls for an immediate cease-fire also have come from the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.

The White House on Wednesday continued to blame Hamas for the violence in Gaza, and stepped up its rhetoric accusing Iran and Syria of supplying the Palestinian militant group with weaponry.

“There is no doubt that Iran and Syria are the ones who have assisted Hamas with their weapons acquisition, and that’s a problem,” said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe, briefing reporters at President Bush’s Texas ranch.

Mr. Bush spoke by phone Wednesday morning with Mr. Olmert to discuss a cease-fire. Mr. Olmert told Mr. Bush that Israeli military forces were “taking appropriate steps to avoid civilian casualties,” Mr. Johndroe said.

But as for a cease-fire, the Bush administration continued to insist that Hamas needed to stop firing rockets and mortars into southern Israel.

“President Bush thinks that Hamas needs to stop firing rockets, and that is what will be the first steps in a cease-fire,” Mr. Johndroe said. “The onus is on Hamas.”

An aide to Mr. Olmert quoted the prime minister as telling the Cabinet: “We didn’t start this operation just to end it with rocket fire continuing as it did before it began,” Reuters news agency reported. “Imagine if we declare a unilateral cease-fire and a few days later rockets fall on [the town of] Ashkelon. What will that do to Israel’s deterrence?”

While rejecting France’s proposed truce, Israel said it would allow 2,000 tons of food and medical supplies to enter Gaza on Wednesday, in addition to 4,000 tons the military says have been allowed into the strip since the offensive began. Several dozen chronically ill and wounded Gazans also were authorized to enter Israel for treatment Wednesday, the military said.

Washington Times reporter Jon Ward contributed to this report.

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