- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 10, 2009

JERUSALEM | Israeli jets and helicopters bombarded Gaza Friday, and Hamas responded with a barrage of rockets on at least two cities as both sides defied a U.N. call for an immediate cease-fire.

One Israeli air strike killed two Hamas militants and another unidentified man, while another flattened a five-story building in northern Gaza, killing at least seven people, including an infant, Hamas officials said. Israeli aircraft struck more than 30 targets before dawn, and there were constant explosions after first light.

By afternoon, 23 Palestinians had been killed, pushing the death toll to 777 in the two-week-old conflict, according to Gaza health officials who say at least half of those killed were civilians. Thirteen Israelis also have been killed.

The United Nations kept aid deliveries to Gaza on hold for a second day because of security concerns, but Palestinians who risked going to relief centers could still get food and medicine. Just over half of the territory’s population of 1.4 million rely on the U.N. for food.

U.N. officials said later they planned to resume the aid operations “as soon as practical,” based on assurances from the Israeli military that aid workers would be better protected. The U.N. halted deliveries Thursday after Israeli tank fire killed an aid truck driver, and the Red Cross restricted its activities after one of its drivers was injured in a similar incident.

The World Food Program and UNICEF stressed they were still operating in the Palestinian territory, where 1 million people were without electricity and 750,000 didn’t have running water, according to the United Nations.

A U.N. Security Council resolution approved Thursday night called urgently for an immediate, durable and fully respected cease-fire, leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza. The U.S., Israel’s closest ally and a veto-wielding member of the Security Council, abstained.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the U.S. “fully supports” the Security Council resolution but abstained “to see the outcomes of the Egyptian mediation” with Israel and Hamas, also aimed at achieving a cease-fire.

In Israel’s first official response to the resolution, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office said the Hamas rockets fired at Israel Friday “only prove that the U.N.’s decision is not practical and will not be kept in practice by the Palestinian murder organizations.”

A Hamas spokesman said the Islamic militant group “is not interested” in the cease-fire because it was not consulted and the resolution did not meet its minimum demands, including the full opening of Gaza’s blockaded border crossings. Israel is unlikely to agree to that demand, as it would allow Hamas to strengthen its hold on the territory that it violently seized in June 2007.

Israel launched its assault on Dec. 27 in an attempt to halt years of rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled territory.

Despite the devastating offensive, Hamas kept up rocket attacks on southern Israel. More than 30 rockets hit Friday in and around two of the largest southern cities, Beersheba and Ashkelon. No casualties were reported.

A day after two people suffered light injuries in northern Israel when at least three rockets were fired from southern Lebanon, the Lebanese army said its soldiers had found 34 missiles in two caches near the border.

The West Bank saw its biggest protests so far, as at least 2,000 people took to the streets following Friday prayers to express their anger at the Israeli offensive. Tens of thousands of people also condemned Israel’s offensive at protest rallies in Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Qatar. Protesters also took to the streets in Algeria, Greece, Turkey, Kenya, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Bulgaria.

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