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Israeli Forces Edge Into Gaza City, Hamas Defiant


Smoke from Israeli strikes billows in Gaza City on January 9.

Smoke from Israeli strikes billows in Gaza City on January 9.

GAZA (Reuters) -- Israeli forces edged into the Gaza Strip's most populous area on January 11, killing at least 14 Palestinian guerrillas and 12 civilians in an offensive stepped up in defiance of international calls for a cease-fire.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said his ruling Islamist group would not consider a cease-fire until Israel ended its 16-day-old air, sea, and ground assault and lifted a Gaza blockade. A Hamas delegation held talks in Cairo on an Egyptian truce plan.

Israel, describing as unworkable a UN Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire, wants a halt to Palestinian crossborder rocket attacks and arrangements to ensure that Hamas cannot rearm through tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border. An Israeli defense official was to visit Egypt on January 12 to press for tougher antismuggling measures.

Backed by helicopter gunships, Israeli troops and tanks pushed into eastern and southern parts of the city of Gaza, confronting Hamas militants who fired antiarmor missiles and mortar bombs.

"Israel is getting close to achieving the goals it set for itself," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his cabinet, citing a desire "to change the security situation in the south," a reference to the Hamas rockets threat.

A total of 868 Palestinians, many of them civilians, and 13 Israelis --- three civilians hit by rocket fire and 10 soldiers --- have been killed since Israel's offensive began on December 27. New street fighting killed 10 gunmen, Palestinian medical workers said. Another three militants were killed by Israeli air strikes.

Witnesses said Israeli tank fire in Beit Lahiya, in the northeastern Gaza Strip, killed five women and a man who had returned to their abandoned homes to take showers, and a woman in Nusseirat in the central part of the territory. Four members of a family, one a member of a Hamas police force, were killed in an air strike on a house north of Gaza and another civilian was killed outside the southern town of Khan Younis, medical workers said.

Israeli shelling of two villages south of the city of Gaza killed a woman and set 15 houses on fire, witnesses said. Some 50 people suffered from burns and gas inhalation, they said. Israel's military said it attacked a mosque used to store weapons, 10 squads of gunmen, three rocket-launching sites and the house of Hamas commander.

Though Palestinian rocket salvoes have diminished, two rockets on January 12 struck Beersheba, 42 kilometers inside Israel, police said. There was some damage but no casualties.

Olmert convened his cabinet for a discussion expected to include a possible "third stage" of the offensive in which the military would storm into Gaza's urban areas. In broadcast remarks, Olmert gave no timeframe for the Gaza operations, saying only that Israel "must not miss out, at the last moment, on what has been achieved through an unprecedented national effort."

Denunciation

While Israeli commanders said whole Hamas battalions were being wiped out, Damascus-based Meshaal said Israeli forces had achieved nothing and pointed to the continued rocket fire.

Israeli actions have drawn denunciations from the Red Cross, UN agencies and Arab and European governments.

New York-based Human Rights Watch has called on Israel to stop using white-phosphorus munitions in densely populated areas in the Gaza Strip, saying the chemical could severely burn people and set structures and fields on fire.

The group said white phosphorus was apparently being used to create smoke screens, describing this as "a permissible use in principle under international law."

But it also noted media photographs of air-bursting white phosphorus projectiles, which it said can spread burning wafers over an area between 125 and 250 meters in diameter, depending on the altitude of the explosion.

Israel said it uses only weapons permitted by international law. It has accused Hamas of using civilians as human shields.

Israel's biggest-selling newspaper, "Yedioth Ahronoth," quoted the general overseeing the Gaza offensive, Yoav Galant, as wanting for government approval to seize swathes of the territory.

"If we don't do that we'll be missing an historic opportunity," Galant said, according to the newspaper.

Galant was further quoted as saying that ending the assault now would deliver "years" of quiet along the Gaza border, but that Hamas would resume its military buildup and acquire rockets capable of reaching Tel Aviv, the heart of Israel.
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