- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 11, 2009

TEL AVIV | Israel’s air force dropped leaflets Saturday over Gaza’s cities, warning residents of a new stage in the military offensive and telling them to stay clear of the fighting — an ominous sign that escalation is imminent in the two-week war against Hamas.

The warnings came as tens of thousands of people demonstrated in cities around the world — including Tel Aviv — to put an end to the violence.

A week of international diplomatic pressure, which culminated in Thursday’s U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire, has failed to dampen the attacks from both sides and the momentum toward more violence.

Israel’s army said it struck 60 Hamas targets Saturday, including tunnels and weapons depots. The military said that among those killed during a ground assault was a Hamas commander responsible for dozens of rocket launches into southern Israel from the Gaza City region. Palestinian militants fired about 20 rockets at Israeli cities.

The leaflets dropped from Israeli airplanes Saturday urged Gaza residents not to help Hamas and to stay away from its members.

“The IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] will escalate the operation in the Gaza Strip,” the leaflets said in Arabic, according to the Associated Press. “The IDF is not working against the people of Gaza, but against Hamas and the terrorists only. Stay safe by following our orders.”

With several thousand reserve soldiers waiting at the Gaza border, Israel is not expected to postpone a decision for long on whether to step up its offensive or pursue a cease-fire. Though Egypt is trying to advance cease-fire talks by mediating between Israel and Hamas, Israel appears to be moving ahead with a new phase in its ground offensive.

Despite a growing humanitarian crisis among Gazans who lack water and food, and a leadership that has gone underground, Hamas has remained defiant. Hamas leader-in-exile Khalid Mashaal said Hamas won’t consider a cease-fire until Israel withdraws from Gaza and ends the months-long economic siege on Gaza.

“Let Israel pull out first, let the aggression stop first, let the crossings open and then people can look into the issue of calm,” said Mr. Mashaal on Saturday in a speech televised in Damascus, the Syrian capital, Reuters reported.

Mr. Mashaal also reportedly rejected a proposal for an international force to patrol Gaza’s porous borders. And yet Hamas envoys are slated to discuss a cease-fire proposal in Cairo on Monday with Egypt.

Having suffered few casualties as it continues to pound Hamas, Israeli officials think they hold the upper hand in the fighting. Israeli media quoted army officers saying that more than 300 Hamas operatives had been killed since the beginning of the assault.

Though the offensive hasn’t snuffed out the rocket fire, the number of daily strikes dropped from about 60 a week ago to about 20 Saturday, boosting confidence that the offensive is having an effect. Still, there’s a sense among Israelis that the army has yet to level a decisive blow to Hamas’ military outfit.

More than 800 Palestinians have died in the Israeli offensive, which began Dec. 27, and thousands have been injured — many of them civilians, according to Palestinian health officials. About a dozen Israelis have died, including civilians killed in rocket attacks and soldiers killed in the offensive.

Over the weekend, the U.N. relief agency in Gaza announced that it was resuming activities just two days after threatening to shut down, in protest of purported Israeli attacks on its humanitarian convoys and installations.

The Israeli military announced a three-hour halt to operations in Gaza on Saturday to help medics use the lull to rescue the wounded and let aid groups hurry through a food distribution.

But the Associated Press reported that for the second straight day, fighting continued even during the lull.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of demonstrators marched in cities across Europe and the Middle East on Saturday to protest Israel’s offensive in Gaza. There were sporadic clashes with police as some rallies turned violent, Reuters reported.

Police in riot gear confronted about 20,000 protesters waving banners and Palestinian flags outside the Israeli Embassy in central London, while Oslo police used tear gas as they fought activists on the streets of the Norwegian capital.

About 30,000 took to the streets of Paris to call for an end to Israeli attacks in Gaza, with many demonstrators wearing Palestinian keffiyah head scarves and chanting “We are all Palestinians,” “Israel murderer” or “peace.”

For the first time since the start of the war, two Israeli mainstream political groups held demonstrations calling on the government to halt its offensive and focus on cease-fire negotiations.

Holding up banners saying “It’s Time to Stop,” about 1,000 protesters gathered across the street from Israel’s Defense Ministry. Organized by Peace Now, the small number of demonstrators underlined the fact that the vast majority of the Israeli public still supports the war. Protest leaders, however, warned that a continuation of the offensive would yield little political or security benefits.

“It’s a difficult time to bring so many people out to the streets,” conceded Peace Now Chairman Yariv Oppenheimer. “But there is a point where force is not effective anymore. It’s just for killing.”

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