- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 3, 2009

With its tanks and troops poised for days at the Gaza frontier, Israel signaled Friday - by allowing hundreds of Palestinians with foreign passports to escape the coastal strip - that it might give the go-ahead for a ground invasion of the embattled Arab territory.

Among those allowed to leave were 27 U.S. citizens and members of their families whom the State Department said it helped get out of Gaza and would send to Jordan. The department said it stood ready to help others flee the Israeli bombardment.

Underscoring the urgency of the situation, the White House took the unusual step of releasing President Bush´s weekly Saturday address a day early. Mr. Bush blamed the militant Hamas rulers of Gaza for the outbreak of hostilities with Israel and said “another one-way cease-fire that leads to rocket attacks on Israel is not acceptable.”

Israeli warplanes and attack helicopters returned to the skies over Gaza for the seventh successive day, bombing a mosque that the Israelis said was more a weapons warehouse than a religious site.

According to the Israelis, the mosque was a stronghold of Hamas, the militant group that has ruled Gaza since 2007, and of one of its five top leaders, Nizar Rayan. He, all four of his wives and 11 of his children were among 20 people killed by a one-ton Israeli bomb dropped on his home Thursday.

In resuming the battle from the air Friday, Israeli aircraft also blasted about 20 houses thought to be owned by Hamas militants and members of other armed groups.

Israel a week ago launched what appeared to be its deadliest offensive against Gaza since it captured the strip from Egypt in the 1967 Six-Day War, to stop a daily barrage of rockets and short-range missiles, some of them smuggled through tunnels dug from Egypt´s Sinai Peninsula. Those rocket attacks have continued, however, and in the past week have slammed into cities as far from Gaza as the Negev capital of Beersheba, 27 miles away.

The rocket bombardments intensified after a six-month cease-fire expired Dec. 19.

Despite the repeated Israeli air attacks, Hamas gunners launched another 30 rockets into southern Israel Friday, slightly wounding four Israelis. Three Israeli civilians and a soldier have been killed. The United Nations estimated 400 Palestinians have been killed in the Israeli assaults, about 100 of them civilians, including women and children.

The evacuees told the Associated Press of crippling shortages of water, electricity and medicine, echoing a U.N. warning of a deepening humanitarian crisis in the besieged enclave.

Jawaher Hajji, a 14-year-old U.S. citizen who was allowed to cross into Israel, said her uncle was killed while trying to pick up some medicine for her cancer-stricken father. She said her father later died of his illness.

“They are supposed to destroy just the Hamas, but people in their homes are dying too,” Jawaher, who has relatives in Virginia, told the AP at the Erez border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel.

International calls for a cease-fire have been growing, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy is expected in the region next week. Israel has said it would consider stopping its attacks if Hamas stops firing missiles and international monitors are brought in to police a new truce.

Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said in a televised speech from Damascus on Friday that Hamas was ready to resist any Israeli ground invasion of Gaza and might abduct more soldiers, the Reuters news agency reported.

“If you commit a foolish act by raiding Gaza, who knows, we may have a second or a third or a fourth Shalit,” Mr. Mashaal said. Israeli soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit was kidnapped more than two years ago.

“We are ready for the challenge, this battle was imposed on us and we are confident we will achieve victory, because we have made our preparations,” he added.

Thousands attended a memorial service Friday for Mr. Rayan, with throngs praying over the rubble of his home and the nearby destroyed mosque.

Separate air strikes killed five other Palestinians - including a teenage boy east of Gaza City, and three children - two brothers and their cousin - who were playing in southern Gaza, according to Health Ministry official Dr. Moaiya Hassanain.

Amid the bombardments, Israel allowed 270 Palestinians with foreign passports to escape the fighting. They were expected to join their families in the United States, Russia, Turkey, Norway, Belarus, Kazakhstan and elsewhere.

The move was akin to allowing dependents of diplomats or other officials leave war-torn areas in preparation for major offensives.

The decision to permit those people to leave could signal a green light for Israeli ground forces to begin moving into Gaza. Israel has sent its Merkava tanks, armored personnel carriers and thousands of reserve troops to its frontier with Gaza in preparations for a ground assault apparently aimed at uprooting Hamas from Gaza.

Hamas has ruled the strip´s 1.5 million Palestinians since it won a civil war against the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas in 2007. Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005. The PA now administers only the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and Mr. Bush, in his Saturday address, said Mr. Abbas is “the legitimate leader of the Palestinian people.”

As for another cease-fire, Mr. Bush said that “promises from Hamas will not suffice - there must be monitoring mechanisms in place to help ensure that smuggling of weapons to terrorist groups in Gaza comes to an end.”

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