Israel presses attacks on defiant Gaza

Posted at 11/16/12 1:28 AM

GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories - Seven Palestinians and three Israelis were killed in a wave of unrelenting cross-border fighting on Thursday as the Jewish state pressed a vast air offensive on Gaza.

Operation Pillar of Defence, Israel's biggest military campaign against Gaza in nearly four years, began on Wednesday with the targeted killing of top Hamas commander Ahmed Jaabari, which triggered a major flareup in and around the tiny Palestinian enclave which is home to 1.6 million Palestinians.

The violence, which erupted as Israel heads towards a January general election, sparked expressions of deep concern from the international community and prompted an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council in New York.

Despite more than 24 hours of Israel air strikes, Gaza's ruling Hamas movement remained defiant, ruling out any talk of a truce even as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was ready to "significantly expand" its campaign against the territory.

"In the past 24 hours, Israel has made it clear that it will not tolerate rocket and missile attacks on its civilians. I hope that Hamas and the other terror organisations in Gaza got the message," he said.

"If not, Israel is prepared to take whatever action is necessary to defend our people."

But Hamas's exiled leader Khaled Meshaal said Israel would never be able to "vanquish" Gaza and pledged that "the war against the enemy will go on," even after the loss of Hamas's top commander.

And Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri insisted the Islamist movement was not interested by talk of a truce.

"We consider talk of a truce at this time an attempt to provide more cover for the continuation of the escalation," he told a press conference. "Talk of a truce is another attempt by the occupation at deception."

As the offensive stretched well into its second day, the Israeli military confirmed that a rocket had landed in an area 15 kilometres (nine miles) southeast of Tel Aviv, causing no injuries or damage.

Since the start of Operation Pillar of Defence, the military said it had carried out more than 150 air strikes as armed groups fired more than 200 rockets at southern Israel.

So far, 15 people have been killed in Gaza, among them seven militants and three children, a woman and two elderly men, and 150 people have been injured in scores of Israeli strikes, medics and health ministry officials said.

And in the southern Israeli town of Kiryat Malachi, police said two men and a woman had been killed when a rocket hit their home, and that another 19 people had been injured in various areas, among them three soldiers.

Over a 24 hour-period, at least 138 rockets hit southern Israel while another 81 were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system, a military spokeswoman said.

Israeli police said they had raised their level of alert nationwide for fear of retaliatory attacks after the killing of the Hamas chief, and that all schools within 40 kilometres (24 miles) of Gaza were closed.

In Gaza, the streets were largely quiet as people huddled inside their homes, the tension broken only by the sound of outgoing rockets, the jarring of air strikes or the wail of sirens as ambulances rushed the wounded to hospital, an AFP correspondent said.

During the morning, thousands joined a funeral procession for Jaabari as militants fired in the area, breathing violent threats of revenge.

The Israeli operation prompted an outpouring of anger across the Arab and Muslim world, with Tehran accusing the Jewish state of "organised terrorism" and Qatar's prime minister saying the strikes "must not pass unpunished."

Egypt's Islamist administration, which has close ties with Hamas, immediately recalled its ambassador in protest, but in a surprise development, Hamas officials said they had been informed by Cairo that the Egyptian premier would visit Gaza with a number of ministers on Friday.

There was no immediate confirmation from Egypt.

As Russia slammed Israel for "disproportionate" use of force in Gaza, Britain said it was Hamas that bore "principal responsibility" for the current crisis, with both governments calling for calm.