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Israel Battles Hamas As Gaza Ground Invasion Begins

Israeli soldiers cross the border into the Gaza Strip.

Israeli soldiers cross the border into the Gaza Strip.

(RFE/RL) -- Fierce fighting has erupted in the Gaza Strip after Israeli forces launched a ground invasion following a week of air strikes on Hamas targets.

After nightfall on January 3, thousands of Israeli troops, backed by columns of tanks, crossed the border at several points. They pushed deep into the coastal territory, effectively cutting it in two.

A short while later, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak went on television to tell the nation the campaign against Hamas would not be over any time soon.

"We have carefully weighed all our options. we are not war-hungry, but we shall not, I repeat, we shall not allow a situation where our towns, villages, and civilians are constantly targeted by Hamas," Barak said. "It will not be easy or short, but we are determined."

The offensive focused on northern Gaza, with heavy fighting reported around Gaza City and outside the town of Jabaliya.

By early on January 4, Israeli forces were said to be ringing Gaza City itself.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told a meeting of his cabinet that Israel had had no choice, "that there's no alternative to a ground operation to achieve the targets of this operation."

Speaking on the ABC News program "This Week," Israeli President Shimon Peres said: "We don't intend neither to occupy Gaza nor to crush Hamas, but to crush terror. And Hamas needs a real and serious lesson. They are now getting it," Reuters reported.

Mounting Casualties

There have already been casualties on both sides since the ground offensive began.

Israel says at least 30 of its soldiers were injured, two seriously. And Palestinian medical officials said at least 42 people were killed in Gaza, many of them civilians.

Hamas also claimed to have captured two Israeli soldiers, though the Israeli military said it knew of no such incident.

And the Israeli army said one woman was injured when rockets from the Gaza Strip were fired at the southern Israeli town of Sderot.

Meanwhile the bombardment continued from air and sea, as Israeli war planes struck tunnels and weapons storage facilities, and gunboats attacked Hamas targets from the coast. The ground action followed a week of Israeli air strikes.

The stated objective is to get hold of the launching sites used by Hamas militants to send rockets into southern Israel. But the offensive has killed some 500 Palestinians -- around one-quarter of them civilians, according to the UN.

And Gazans' plight has become more desperate, with aid agencies warning that water, food and medicines are all in short supply

It's prompted criticism and mass protests across the Middle East, as well as demonstrations in several European cities.

International Opinion Divided

In the latest international reaction, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign-policy chief, both called for an immediate cease-fire. France has condemned Israel's decision to send in ground forces, calling it a dangerous escalation.

But at the United Nations, the Security Council late on January 3 failed to agree on a call for an immediate cease-fire after the move was blocked by the United States.

The U.S. deputy ambassador, Alejandro Wolff, said there was no point issuing statements that Hamas would ignore.

"It is our firm view that Hamas is in violation and has been since the calm was agreed to, since [UN] Resolution 1850 was adopted, and since the press statement was issued last week," Wolff said. "We don't see any prospect for Hamas abiding by these terms and issuing a statement at this time that would not be adhered to, would have no underpinning for success, would not do credit to the council."

Libyan UN Ambassador Giadalla Ettalhi, the only Arab member of the council, said the United States objected to "any outcome" during the closed council discussions on the proposed statement.

Riyad Mansour, the permanent Palestinian observer at the UN, attacked the council's inaction. "We have aggression against the Palestinian people," he said, "and it is a sad and tragic moment when the Security Council cannot address this issue by at least demanding from Israel, the occupying power and aggressor, to stop this aggression immediately."

Meanwhile, international attempts to end the crisis continue.

Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair plans to visit Israeli leaders and Palestinian leaders in the West Bank. Russia has also announced it was sending an envoy to the region.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said the Israeli ground operation is complicating efforts by the Quartet of Middle East peacemakers -- the European Union, Russia, the UN, and the United States -- to end the violence.

Also, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is due in Israel on January 5 for talks on a cease-fire with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and, separately, Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas.

But in the meantime, Hamas is defiant. Its spokesman, Ismail Radwan, said Gaza would become a "graveyard" for Israel forces.

RFE/RL's UN correspondent Nikola Krastev contributed to this report. With agency reports