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Israeli Troops Widen, Deepen Push Into Gaza, As Death Toll Mounts

Smoke billows from fires raging on the edge of Gaza City on January 5.
GAZA (Reuters) -- Israeli forces have pressed closer and into cities in the Gaza Strip despite new international calls for a cease-fire in an 11-day-old conflict in which hundreds of Palestinians have been killed.

Palestinian witnesses said Israeli forces moved into Khan Younis in southern Gaza as the army widened the ground assault it launched four days ago against Hamas militants after a week of air strikes failed to stamp out crossborder rocket fire.

There was intense fighting overnight on the outskirts of the city of Gaza, where residents huddled indoors in fear. Deaths recorded by Palestinian medics reached 564.

Most of several dozen deaths reported by hospitals in recent days have been civilians, apparently because dead militants remain on the battlefield. The Israeli military said it had killed 130 militants since January 3 -- an indication that the total Palestinian death toll since December 27 may be close to 700.

Israel's military said three soldiers were killed and 24 were wounded on January 5 when an Israeli tank fired at a building in northern Gaza that they had occupied in fighting against the Islamist Hamas group, which seized control of Gaza in 2007.

Preventing a Hamas arms buildup is the necessary foundation of any new calm arrangement. That is the make-or-break issue.
The "friendly fire" incident caused the military's highest casualty toll since Israel launched its offensive. Eight Israelis, including four civilians hit in Palestinian rocket attacks, have been killed in the conflict.

Palestinian medics said 18 Palestinian civilians were killed on January 6, including 10 people who were hit by naval shells along the beach in the central Gaza Strip.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the assault could get harder for troops. Hamas, vowing to fight on in every street and alley, threatened to fire more rockets across into Israel.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, on a peace mission to the Middle East, and U.S. President George W. Bush, in his final weeks in the White House, both appealed for a cease-fire.

Israel set a key condition for a cease-fire on January 6, saying it would not agree to a truce unless it included provisions to prevent Hamas from rearming.

"Preventing a Hamas arms buildup is the necessary foundation of any new calm arrangement. That is the make-or-break issue," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Israel, whose leaders fight a parliamentary poll on February 10, made clear its priority was securing the safety of its citizens. Hamas demanded a lifting of Israel's blockade of Gaza. Many of the enclave's 1.5 million people lack food, water, or power.

The Jewish state launched the offensive after Hamas called off a six-month truce last month and stepped up crossborder rocket attacks in response to Israeli raids and the blockade.

Suicide Bombers

Israeli media reported that Hamas gunmen were maneuvering within a well-fortified tunnel system and that Israeli troops had encountered Palestinian suicide bombers.

Militants had been trying to lure Israeli soldiers into built-up areas, witnesses said.

An overnight Israeli air strike in the southern Gaza town of Rafah killed a Palestinian woman, medical officials said.

Barak told Israeli legislators on January 5 that Hamas had been dealt a heavy blow. "But we cannot say that its fighting capabilities have been harmed...Difficult moments lie ahead in this operation and the main test could still be ahead," he said.

Hamas leaders, who have support from Iran and Syria but are viewed with suspicion by most Arab states, were defiant.

Thousands of fighters were waiting "in every street, every alley and at every house" to tackle the Israeli forces, Hamas military spokesman Abu Ubaida said in a broadcast speech.

Hamas would increase its rocket strikes on Israel if the Jewish state kept on attacking Gaza, said Ubaida.

Hamas, which wants to reverse the events of 1948 that created the Jewish state and turned Palestinians into refugees, won a parliamentary election in 2006.

It routed rival forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas in 2007, taking control of Gaza and creating a schism that has blighted Abbas's bid to found a Palestinian state through U.S.-brokered talks with Israel.

Israel pulled its troops and more than 8,000 settlers out of Gaza in 2005 after 38 years of occupation in a move that many at the time hoped would lead to a breakthrough for relations between Israel and the Palestinians.