Saturday, January 03, 2009

Israeli tanks expected in Gaza Strip as foreigners are allowed to flee

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January 3, 2009

Israeli troops and tanks

Hundreds of Israeli troops and tanks could enter the Gaza Strip this morning

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Israel is poised for a big ground offensive in the Gaza Strip after allowing hundreds of foreigners to leave the devastated territory.

The Times understands that Israeli troops and tanks will imminently be operating inside the area as part of large-scale operation to prevent Hamas from firing rockets into southern Israel.

One of the main thrusts of the attack could be the so-called Philadelphi Road that runs along Gaza’s border with Egypt, under which Hamas has smuggled arms, missiles and men through a network of tunnels. Israel controlled the border until its army withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

A week of airstrikes has killed at least 430 Palestinians and left scores of buildings as rubble, despite diplomatic efforts to secure a ceasefire. Hamas rocket attacks have killed four Israelis since the fighting began.

Despite the looming onslaught, the rocket squads fired yet more projectiles into southern Israel yesterday. Hamas vowed that its barrage, which has lasted for years and which finally provoked the Israeli campaign, would not stop. “I call on the resistance to continue pounding Jewish settlements and cities,” said Sheikh Abdelrahman al-Jamal at the funeral of Nizar Rayyan, a Hamas political leader killed, together with his four wives and 11 children, in an Israeli airstrike on his home. “We will remain on the path of jihad until the end of days.”

The funeral was held outdoors because an earlier air raid had smashed the mosque where the service had been due to take place. Israel said that the building had been used to stockpile weapons.

Among the mounting Palestinian death toll yesterday were three young brothers, aged 7 to 10, who were killed in one of the 30 or so strikes carried out by Israeli warplanes. All along the border, Israeli tanks and troops have turned fields into muddy, makeshift camps from which to launch their offensive. The Government has already mobilised more than 6,000 reserve troops and has given the green light to call up almost 3,000 more. Artillery barrages were also fired into the strip, while aircraft bombed the open ground that the hundreds of troops will need to cross, and where Hamas has placed mines and dug tunnels to outflank the invaders.

Support for Operation Cast Lead remains high in Israel, with polls showing that almost 85 per cent of the public back the campaign.

Hamas has an estimated 15,000 fighters who have used the 18 months that they have controlled the Gaza Strip to hone their skills in anticipation of open combat with Israel.

The onslaught has provoked large antiIsraeli demonstrations around the world, with protests yesterday in India, Indonesia, Turkey and Australia. But Hamas’s calls for a “day of wrath” in the Palestinian territories produced only a lukewarm response in the face of clampdowns by Israeli security forces. Several thousand protesters marched through the West Bank city of Ramallah and youths in east Jerusalem threw stones at Israeli security forces and 50 women demonstrated outside the Friday prayers at the al-Aqsa mosque. The protesters directed their anger at their own Palestinian leaders, and heads of Arab countries whom they felt had not done enough to stop Israel’s incursion. “[President] Abbas is with the Jews, not with the Arabs. If he really was supporting and working in favour of our Arab brothers in Gaza, this would not have happened,” Um-Mahr, a 66-year-old resident of east Jerusalem said. Akram Jwaeibis, 58, said that Arab leaders were afraid to do more than voice criticism of the Israeli Government. “That is why we are waiting for [the Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah. Or [the Hamas leader Ismail] Haniya to do something more.”

Diplomatic efforts to contain the crisis were growing after Israel’s surprise offensive. “We are working towards a ceasefire that would not allow a reestablishment of the status quo ante where Hamas can continue to launch rockets,” Condoleezza Rice, the outgoing US Secretary of State, said.

A high-level European delegation is due in the region this weekend, as are President Sarkozy of France and Tony Blair, the international community’s envoy to the Middle East.

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