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Israel Presses Gaza Assault, As France Seeks Truce

Israeli artillery fires toward the Gaza Strip from the Israeli side of the Israel-Gaza border on January 4.
GAZA (Reuters) -- At least three children were among a dozen Palestinian civilians killed on January 5 as Israeli troops pressed home a ground assault on Hamas militants in the face of French-led diplomatic efforts to broker a cease-fire.

The deaths included three children from the Samouni family and their mother when a tank shell hit their home in the city of Gaza, Palestinian medics said, and seven members of the Abu Aisha family, killed in an explosion at the nearby Beach refugee camp.

The Israeli Army said "many dozens" of Islamist fighters had been killed since ground troops went in on January 3 in a stated attempt to end rocket fire by Hamas into southern Israel.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy was expected to arrive in the region on January 5 in a fresh diplomatic push for a truce, which Israel has so far resisted.

A Hamas official said a delegation from the Islamist group would head for talks in Egypt, which has launched contacts to achieve a cease-fire to end Israel's 10-day-old offensive.

We shall not accept the idea that Hamas will continue to fire and we shall declare a cease-fire. It does not make any sense.
Blasts rocked Gaza overnight after Israeli soldiers moved into a northern zone. Israeli forces had asked residents to leave their homes to avoid being hurt in the clashes. Some families sought refuge in nearby United Nations run schools.

A military spokeswoman said the air force bombed more than 30 targets, including homes of Hamas members used as weapons depots, tunnels, and a suspected antiaircraft rocket launcher.

Israeli media said troops were hunting Hamas members in house-to-house combat, and that during one clash Palestinians attempted to capture a soldier. The military said six soldiers were wounded in fighting overnight but gave no further details.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he had recalled his special Middle East envoy for briefings, adding that he was worried about the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Israel launched its offensive with aerial bombardments on December 27 to curtail Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza ahead of an Israeli national election next month.

At least 524 Palestinians have been killed, at least one-quarter of them civilians, a UN agency said. Forty-two, mostly civilians, were killed on January 4, a medical source said.

Four Israelis have been killed by rockets and mortars fired into Israel since the offensive began and an Israeli soldier was killed in fighting on January 4, and 48 were wounded after Israel expanded its operation into a ground invasion.

Israel's advances into Gaza have carved the 40-kilometer-long coastal territory into two separate zones, and forces have surrounded its largest urban area, the city of Gaza.

Diplomatic Push

Hamas was sending representatives to Egypt for talks for the first time since the fighting began, said Hamas's Ayman Taha.

The United States, the region's powerbroker and Israel's closest ally, looked all but sidelined by the pending transfer of its presidency, offering Europe a chance to take the lead and press for an end to the Israeli assault.

U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has been silent on the crisis, his advisers saying only President George W. Bush would speak for Washington until Obama is sworn in on January 20.

The Bush administration has supported Israel, saying Hamas had to halt rocket fire at Israel for a truce to take shape.

Sarkozy, who meets Israeli leaders on January 5, has not let the end of France's European Union presidency last week prevent him from taking a vanguard role, but will share the work with a separate delegation led by the Czech foreign minister.

Before heading for Egypt for talks, to be followed by meetings in Israel and the Palestinian territories, Sarkozy said he "condemned this offensive" for distancing chances for peace and making it harder to get aid to Palestinians in Gaza.

Aid groups have warned of a serious humanitarian situation in Gaza, where water, food, and medical supplies were running short.

A foreign Red Crescent doctor said on January 4: "Civilians are being killed...shells are severing people's legs, shrapnel is going into people's bodies and into people's homes, a lot of people are being cut down. Everyone is terrified."

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert assured Sarkozy in a telephone call on January 4 that aid for the 1.5 million people trapped in the Gaza Strip would continue.

Israel said about 80 trucks with humanitarian supplies would be sent to Gaza, in addition to some fuel, and several busloads of foreigners would be permitted to leave Gaza on January 5.

Israeli President Shimon Peres made it clear there would be no military let-up until Hamas stopped firing.

"We shall not accept the idea that Hamas will continue to fire and we shall declare a cease-fire. It does not make any sense," said Peres, whose office is largely titular.

World Protests

Israel has said the Gaza operation, although sparking protests throughout the world, could last many days.

Government officials said Israel had set several goals, including weakening Hamas by killing its fighters and destroying its rocket arsenal.

In addition, Israel hopes to deter crossborder salvoes and win international backing for new security arrangements along the Egyptian-Gaza border to prevent Hamas from re-arming through tunnels, which have been bombed in the current campaign.

Iranian-backed Hamas is estimated to have about 25,000 fighters. Israel has not disclosed how many troops are involved in the operation but thousands of reservists were on standby.

Hamas called off a six-month truce last month and stepped up rocket attacks, citing Israeli raids and a continuing blockade of the enclave Israel quit in 2005.

International peace efforts aimed at creating a Palestinian state foundered after Hamas won an election in 2006 and drove Fatah forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas from Gaza a year later.

Hamas has insisted it would not be subdued. Ali Larijani, speaker of Iran's parliament, said: "The Zionists should know that Gaza will become their graveyard."

Heavy civilian casualties in the territory packed with 1.5 million people could increase world pressure on Israel to halt its biggest military operation in Gaza in four decades.

The fighting holds political risks for Israeli leaders ahead of next month's election, if its forces suffer heavy casualties. Schools and shopping malls have been shut for days in southern Israel and streets were often empty.