- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 11, 2009

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli tanks and infantry pushed deeper into the Gaza Strip’s most heavily populated area on Sunday, engaging in firefights with Islamic Hamas militants whose rocket teams fired a heavy salvo at southern Israel.

Efforts to negotiate an end to the war persisted, even though Israel and Hamas have ignored a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire. Mideast envoy Tony Blair and Germany’s top diplomat visited Jerusalem on Sunday, and Israel planned to send a senior defense official this week to Egypt, which is trying to broker a truce.

Israel’s chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu, said the army has sent more reserve units into the Gaza Strip. However, thousands of reservists who would constitute a new, expanded phase in the ground operation were still in training and have not been deployed.

At least 870 Palestinians, about half of them civilians, have been killed in the conflict, which began Dec. 27 with Israeli airstrikes on Hamas buildings, as well as suspected rocket launch sites and smuggling tunnels on the Egyptian border. Thirteen Israelis, including 10 soldiers, have died.

“Israel is nearing the goals that it set for itself,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who steps down after elections planned for next month, said ahead of a weekly Cabinet meeting.

“However, further patience, determination and effort are necessary in order to achieve those goals in a way that will change the security reality in the south,” he said.

While Mr. Olmert’s comment signaled no immediate end to the offensive, it indicated that Israel is wary of an open-ended conflict with an unclear agenda. Israel wants to end years of rocket attacks by Hamas on Israel’s southern population, a complex goal that could require Egyptian or international help in shutting off weapons smuggling routes.

Hamas, in turn, demands that Israel open Gaza’s blockaded border crossings as part of any halt to the fighting. Such a measure would boost the economic fortunes of the destitute territory but also strengthen Hamas’s control of Gaza, an odious prospect for Israelis, who fear Hamas will re-arm.

Mr. Blair met with Mr. Olmert and said a plan to end the fighting must include a halt to weapons smuggling and the opening of border crossings into Gaza. He said urgency was vital because “every day this action continues, there are more people that die.”

Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, appeared at a news conference with his Israeli counterpart, Tzipi Livni, in Jerusalem.

“The shooting of Qassam rockets and other weapons must be stopped, and the smuggling of new weapons to the Gaza Strip for re-arming, or even to improve the weapons of Hamas, must be stopped,” Mr. Steinmeier said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon planned to travel to the region this week.

Palestinian witnesses said Israeli troops moved to within half a mile of Gaza City’s southern neighborhoods, and within a quarter mile of the northern neighborhood of Sheikh Ajleen.

Firefights in Sheikh Ajleen erupted before dawn as Israeli forces advanced toward Gaza City, which has 400,000 residents, Palestinian witnesses said.

Gunfire subsided in the afternoon, with the Israelis in control of some buildings on the neighborhood’s outskirts. Israeli tanks later withdrew.

“We are safe, but we don’t know for how long,” said Khamis Alawi, 44, who huddled with his wife and six children in their kitchen overnight. He said bullets riddled his walls and several came in through the windows.

Military analysts say Israeli troops are probing territory, clearing buildings and moving around regularly, rather than digging into positions that would allow Hamas militants to get a fix on their whereabouts and lay ambushes. Israel could lose the advantage of armor and heavy firepower in urban settings that the militants know well.

The army “is advancing more into urban areas,” said Maj. Avital Leibovich, an Israeli military spokeswoman. “Since the majority of the Hamas militants are pretty much in hiding in those places, mainly urban places, then we operate in those areas.”

Maj. Leibovich said residential neighborhoods in Gaza are riddled with homemade bombs and booby traps, including mannequins placed at apartment entrances to simulate militants and rigged to explode if soldiers approach.

Israeli military footage showed soldiers walking around a zoo in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City two days ago. The footage showed caged birds and a white cable identified as an explosive detonation cord, part of an alleged booby trap set by Hamas.

Palestinian medical officials reported about 60 deaths on Sunday, including 17 who had died of wounds suffered on previous days.

Most of those killed Sunday were noncombatants, medical officials said, including four members of one family killed when a tank shell hit their home near Gaza City, and a 10-year-old girl killed in a similar attack.

The Israeli military said it “hit” more than 40 Hamas militants on Sunday, but did not specify whether they were killed or wounded.

Israel says Hamas fighters are wearing civilian clothes and endangering civilians by operating in residential areas. International aid groups, however, say Israel must do more to ensure the safety of civilians. They note that civilians are in many cases unable to flee to safe places in Gaza, and are essentially trapped because the territory’s exits are closed.

Israel has warned Gaza residents of a wider offensive. On Sunday, it dropped leaflets urging Gaza residents to report the whereabouts of Hamas fighters, providing a phone number to call.

In other fighting, Hamas militants launched at least 24 rockets at southern Israel, lightly injuring three people. Rockets hit an empty kindergarten and a children’s playground in the city of Ashdod.

The rockets have disrupted life for hundreds of thousands of terrified people, who rush into bunkers and basements at the sound of warning sirens. Four people have died in the attacks.

However, thousands of children in southern Israel returned to school Sunday for the first time in two weeks. Schools had been closed since the beginning of the offensive, but the military said schools that have been sufficiently fortified against attack could open.

The U.N. agency in charge of Palestinian refugees has resumed operations after suspending them because of Israeli attacks on its convoys. U.N. aid vehicles were moving around Gaza on Sunday, and U.N. workers tended to about 30,000 people in shelters, but aid officials warned that the dire security situation made it impossible to operate at full capacity.

“This is a very small fraction of what we normally do in the Gaza Strip,” said Filippo Grandi of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency. “Things might get worse.”

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