Bloodshed without end: Over 300 killed as Israeli bombardment of Gaza continues

FOR Raed al-Atamneh, the attacks by the Israeli warplanes streaking with impunity several thousand feet above his Gaza home are a personal matter.

"All of my kids are staying in one room. They are all afraid. They say, 'Father, don't leave us alone'," he said yesterday from Beit Hanoun, near the border with Israel. "My windows and those of all my neighbours have been destroyed by the F-16 attacks.

"Is it safe in my house?" he asked. "No. Israel attacked us with 60 planes. May God take care of us."

The perpetual cycle of violence between Israeli and Palestinian, Jew and Muslim, has entered yet another phase – once again deaf to the pleas of the world as the explosions make their own argument.

Pope Benedict appealed: "The native land of Jesus cannot continue to be witness to so much bloodshed, repeating itself without end. I implore an end to that violence, which must be condemned in every manifestation and for a renewal of the truce in the Gaza Strip,"

As the Pope was speaking yesterday, Israel moved tanks, infantry and armour close to the Gaza border, raising the prospect of a ground assault to accompany aerial bombardments that widened yesterday with strikes against smugglers' tunnels along the border with Egypt.

As the aerial offensive entered day three with more bombings on strategic Hamas government targets, Israel said the campaign that began on Saturday was a response to almost daily rocket and mortar fire by Hamas. The Islamist group running the coastal Palestinian enclave ended a six-month ceasefire a week ago.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband added his voice to the international appeal for peace, calling for an end to the "unacceptable" loss of innocent lives.

In southern Israel, authorities cancelled the reopening of schools after the holiday. Shrapnel from one of the Hamas rockets that crashed into southern Israel yesterday tore a hole in the T-shirt of 12-year-old Yossi Shalev, leaving him unscathed and relatives hailing a "miracle".

The boy seemed calm in the emergency room of Barzilai Hospital – moved to a basement out of fear of Hamas shelling – as he recounted the attack.

"We heard two alarms and I went outside a little bit to look," he said. "I saw something black in the sky that was flying quickly, and I went back in. My mother and I were crouched down. The rocket fell in the street, about five or six metres from us. Shrapnel hit the container we were in. I have a lot of luck."

With most of its public backing the war effort, but wariness emerging on the Left, the Israeli cabinet has authorised the call-up of 6,500 reservists.

Hamas, meanwhile, appeared stunned by the scope of the aerial onslaught that Palestinian officials say has taken more than 290 lives in Gaza, which is home to 1.5 million people.

The Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights said 20 of the dead were children under 16 and nine women had been killed. In one attack yesterday, Palestinians said Israeli aircraft bombed a mosque in Gaza City, destroying it. Two bodies were retrieved.

Last night Israeli aircraft bombed the Islamic University and government compound in Gaza City, centres of Hamas power. Witnesses reported counting six separate airstrikes at the university.

United Nations officials said eight students at a UN school had been killed while on buses in an Israeli strike in Gaza City on Saturday. Israel says most casualties had been Hamas fighters or uniformed personnel.

A shocked Hamas was able to fire fewer rockets than expected yesterday, with just 24 missiles and mortars landing in Israel.

Mr al-Atamneh said the Israeli attacks were not turning people against Hamas. "People hate the Israelis," he said. "They have killed such a big number. Nobody is safe – not Hamas, not civilians.

"I know a woman from Beit Hanoun who was killed, a mother with ten children. She was walking close to a place that was attacked."

Israel has closed the Gaza Strip to foreign journalists.

Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, urged Palestinian groups to use "all available means, including martyrdom operations" – a reference to suicide bombings in Israel – to "protect the Palestinian people".

Keeping pressure on Hamas after bombing runs that turned Saturday into one of the bloodiest days for Palestinians in 60 years of conflict, Israeli aircraft flattened the group's security compound in Gaza, killing at least four security men.

Israel expanded its air campaign to southern Gaza, bombing some 40 tunnels that run under the border with Egypt, providing a lifeline to the outside world. Israeli bombs also destroyed Hamas's regional headquarters.

The foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, said on television that Hamas was smuggling weapons and building up a "small army". She added that Israel did not intend to reoccupy Gaza.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, whose Fatah faction controls the West Bank territory and is opposed to Hamas, accused the Islamists of triggering Israel's raids by not extending the ceasefire

"We talked to them (Hamas] and told them ' let the truce continue', so we could have avoided what happened," he said.

By yesterday evening, a handful of people in southern Israel had suffered either slight injuries from shrapnel or were treated for shock, a lighter toll than had been feared a day after more than 250 Palestinians were killed in Gaza and one Israeli man was killed by a rocket in the town of Netivot.

But fear was palpable in Ashdod, the port city 23 miles north of the Strip, which two rockets hit yesterday in the deepest missile penetration yet by Hamas. "People are frightened; some are going into hysteria," said Batel Gedg, a waitress at an empty restaurant in Ashdod. "We thought the rockets wouldn't reach here."

In an Ashkelon shopping centre, Dudi Haim, a barber said: "My children are afraid. My ten-year-old boy has come to sleep with us. He has fear in his eyes."

Mr Haim voiced support for the bombardment. "It is sad because there are a lot of innocent people over there, but we also have children and families. The Arabs don't understand any other way, only force."

But Israel's opposition Meretz Party warned against widening the operation and called on the government to contact Hamas to stop the violence.

Israel and Hamas: why violence reigns again

What is the recent history between Israel and Hamas?

Israel left Gaza in 2005 after a 38-year occupation, but still controls its border crossings, blockaded for months in an effort to pressure militants to halt rocket fire. Islamic Hamas militants seized control of Gaza in June 2007 after routing security forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Why has Israel attacked Hamas in Gaza now?

Tel Aviv has repeatedly warned Hamas that rocket attacks on its territory would not be tolerated. On 22 December, Hamas declared a six-month ceasefire with Israel to be officially over. Two days later, more than 80 rockets and mortars were fired into Israel from Gaza.

What does Hamas hope to gain by such attacks?

It has miscalculated – Hamas intended using the renewed rocket and mortar attacks against Israel as a bargaining chip to get the Jewish state to reopen the Gazan border crossings as part of any new ceasefire deal. Such massive military retaliation from Tel Aviv was not expected by the leadership of the Islamist organisation.

Who is backing Israel's actions?

Worldwide statements of concern and calls to stop military action aside, the United States is the only voice to which Israel listens. So far, the White House has put the onus on Hamas to prevent more violence, calling for a return to the ceasefire and expressing understanding for Tel Aviv's recourse. Barack Obama has also backed Israel.

Who backs Hamas?

Certainly Iran and also Syria – Khaled Meshaal, a senior leader of Hamas, lives openly in Damascus. Evidence, albeit disputed, exists to show Iran supplies Hamas with weapons and has trained its fighters. Just as important, much of the "Arab street" backs Hamas and the Palestinians, taking a view contrary to the leadership of countries such as Egypt.

Hefty 'price tag' is levied on attacks

GOADED by Islamist guerrillas' cross-border attacks, Israel goes to war with a surprise aerial onslaught. Troops and tanks follow, to gain ground and pressure foreign powers into imposing a truce the Israelis can live with. The strategy used by prime minister Ehud Olmert for an offensive in Lebanon in 2006 could again be deployed against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

But there are big differences in the handling of the military operation in Gaza, which the Israeli air force started pounding on Saturday, and it is not clear how regional stability might benefit, let alone peace talks with Palestinians.

For now, Israeli officials sound satisfied with an operation in Gaza that shows few of the tactical mistakes of the 2006 war on Lebanese Hezbollah.

Fewer than half of Gaza's many dead are civilians, Israeli border towns were better prepared this time for retaliatory rocket fire and the Olmert government has not promised big victories.

Hamas has made a new ceasefire conditional on Israel ending an embargo on Gaza, and Israeli officials have hinted they also want new terms met – such as an end to arms smuggling by Hamas and the release of a captive soldier, Gilad Shalit.

"Until Hamas signals that it's ready to back down, all we can do is continue placing a hefty 'price tag' on its rocket attacks," said an Israeli defence official.

Israel's relative reticence may mask uncertainty over how far this assault will go. Although its forces have massed on the border, Israel is in no rush for a reoccupation of the congested, poor and deeply hostile Palestinian territory.

That means exhausting a "bank" of Hamas sites that can be bombed by the Israeli air force, although the Lebanon war showed such raids can quickly push up the civilian casualty toll.

As one Israeli diplomat asked: "What do we do when the target bank runs out?"

Dan Williams

Embassy demo ends in clashes

A PROTEST outside the Israeli embassy in London descended into chaos yesterday as demonstrators clashed with police.

Kensington High Street was closed off with police vans blocking the road as the number of demonstrators swelled during the afternoon to about 2,000.

Violence flared as police attempted physically to remove people so they could reopen the road.

Protesters threw placards and screamed abuse, while some were seen attempting to climb the embassy gate and throwing red liquid to symbolise blood.

• In pictures: Israel attacks Gaza for third day

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