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Israel's Gaza Offensive Enters Third Day, As Casualties Mount

Smoke billows from a targeted location inside the northern Gaza Strip.
(RFE/RL) -- Israeli warplanes have pounded Gaza for a third straight day in air attacks that have killed more than 300 Palestinians.

Now, the Jewish state warns it may launch an additional ground campaign as it continues to respond to almost daily rocket and mortar fire by militants from Gaza's ruling Hamas party. Hamas began firing on Israeli territory after refusing to renew a cease-fire agreement on December 19.

The United Nations and European Union have called for an end to the violence, but Israel has called up 6,000 reservists and says it will be prepared to widen its Gaza offensive.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, told reporters on December 28 that the operation would continue until people in southern Israel "no longer live in terror and in fear of constant rocket barrages."

"The Israeli cabinet decided this morning to authorize the calling up of reserve soldiers," Regev said. "Our initial strikes against the Hamas military machine have been successful, but we have no doubt that the Hamas military machine in Gaza remains both formidable and lethal."

In the latest air strikes, Israeli warplanes bombed Gaza’s Islamic University and government compound, both seats of Hamas power. Israeli tanks are now also poised on Gaza’s borders.

Hamas, meanwhile, remains defiant.

Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman, urged Palestinians to use "all available means, including martyrdom" -- a reference to suicide bombings in Israel.

"This open war on Gaza and against our people, and against the resistance, and against Hamas, will only increase our determination to resist the Zionist enemy, defend our people and families, defend Palestine, and stick to resistance as our method," Barhoum said. "And we will continue it in all its forms, including martyrdom operations, as a response to this attack."

The UN Security Council has called for an overall halt to the violence. But U.S. President George W. Bush's administration has said it is the responsibility of Hamas to renew the six-month cease-fire, which expired December 19.

The Israeli offensive has enraged people in the Middle East.

'We Will Die'

In Iran, which denies allegations that it supplies ally Hamas with arms, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged Muslim states to punish Israel, while thousands of Iranians have staged anti-Israel demonstrations in Tehran.

"We will fight. We will die. We will not compromise!" demonstrators shouted.

Hamas says 180 of its members, many of them security officers, have been killed and that the rest of the more than 300 dead include civilians, among them 16 women and some children.

UN officials say at least 51 civilians have been killed in Gaza so far.

Israel, which says one of its civilians was killed December 29 in a rocket attack, has allowed trucks carrying humanitarian aid to enter Gaza.

But Anne-Sophie Bonefeld, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Jerusalem, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that the situation in Gaza hospitals remains critical.

"The hospitals are in need of medicines, of medical equipment, of blood, of plasma, and so on, so that they can tend to the wounded," Bonefeld said. "But the situation, especially in the emergency rooms, is quite chaotic."

Meanwhile, many Gazans reportedly have begun crossing into Egypt after explosions and bulldozers ripped holes in the border wall. One Egyptian border guard and a Palestinian youth were killed as police sought to hold back the influx.

With agency reports

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