- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2009
UPDATED:

TEL AVIV

Israeli ground forces took up positions on the outskirts of Gaza City and other towns in northern Gaza while Hamas snipers shot back and both sides braced for close-quarter combat with dramatic increases in soldier and civilian casualties.

As a result of the fighting, Gaza City and its main medical center, Shiffa Hospital, were without electricity. More than one of every three residents were without water and sewage was running in the streets, according to Gisha, an Israeli human rights group.

Gaza officials put the Palestinian death toll at 50 since the Israeli ground incursion began Saturday night and more than 500 since Dec. 27, when the Israeli air assault began.

So far, the offensive has failed to stop Palestinian rocket fire.

Sunday, militants launched more than 40 missiles into southern Israel, and army officials warned a half-million Israelis in cities and towns near Gaza to expect prolonged periods of rocket fire.

“The ground action that we began last night, as part of the overall operation, is designed to establish our aspiration to change the security reality in the south,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the Israeli Cabinet.

“It cannot be that the home front will be subject to attack and a daring, strong and well-trained military does not defend it,” Mr. Olmert said.

Israel said that one of its soldiers was killed in Sunday’s fighting, bringing its death toll to five since the offensive began.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and other officials from the European Union were to arrive in the region Monday in an attempt to arrange a cease-fire. But no substantive moves toward a halt in fighting were evident Sunday.

Israel says it doesn’t want to be drawn back into a permanent occupation of Gaza, but it intends to strike a lasting blow to Hamas’ military capabilities.

By ignoring Hamas’ warnings that its forces will suffer heavy losses, Israel also hopes to send a message to ordinary Gazans about the severity of retaliation if its rulers continue to shoot missiles at the Jewish state.

Human rights organizations warned of a burgeoning humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Hamas’ military wing distributed a flier pledging to battle “the invading Zionist forces.” Hamas also claimed that dozens of Israeli soldiers were killed and wounded, but those claims were not confirmed.

Israeli forces cut Gaza in two Sunday, blocking the main north-south road, and reportedly were ordered to slice up the costal strip further.

While condemning the offensive, Hamas’ rival - the Palestinian Authority - has watched the war from the sidelines in the West Bank headquarters in Ramallah.

The unfolding offensive has sparked outrage among the Arab grass roots. It also has widened the rift between pro-Western leaders like Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and militant Islamists such as Hamas and its supporters in Iran.

Mohammed Shtayyeh, head of the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction, suggested that Arab countries send a multinational force to Gaza to maintain security after Israel’s pullout.

For the time being, Israeli forces have established positions near the abandoned Jewish settlement of Netzarim, just south of Gaza City, as well as in locations east and north of the city.

Kamel Kafarna, a resident of the northern Gaza village of Beit Hanoun, said Israeli forces were in the fields outside the village but hadn’t entered the residential area.

His family of four is running low on flour and wheat, and has run out of cooking gas. But the engineering teacher said he hasn’t left his house for three days for fear of getting caught in the crossfire.

“It’s crazy. The bullets and rockets are flying over our heads,” he said. “Most of the civilians, I believe, were killed by mistake. And you don’t [know] if you are going to be the next mistake.”

The Palestinians said Sunday’s attacks left a woman and her four children dead, four paramedics dead and mosques in rubble. Israel has said the targeted mosques are being used to store weapons.

Learning the lessons of the 2006 war with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, Israel has kept its goals limited and has moved methodically.

Analysts contrasted that with Israel’s improvised war management in Lebanon to an army today, which is better prepared both in terms of personal and organization.

By engaging Hamas ground forces in Gaza, Israel wants to draw as many of the fighters from the militant Al-Qassam brigades out of hiding and visit maximum casualties on its fighters.

One of the main risks, analysts fear, is that Israel will find itself mired in Gaza much longer than it originally expected.

“The main risk for Israel is that it will drag out into a full occupation of the Gaza Strip,” said Shlomo Brom, the former head of the army’s planning branch. “If we will have very few casualties in this operation, it may lead to some to say why don’t we topple Hamas?”

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