Israel escalated its military campaign against Hamas yesterday, striking at symbols of the militant group’s control in Gaza and firing tank shells that Palestinian officials said shut down the strip’s only power plant in the heaviest bombardment in the conflict so far.
Hours after the power plant was hit, thick black smoke continued to rise from the plant’s burning fuel tank.
The station’s shutdown is certain to cause further serious disruptions of the flow of electricity and water to the 1.7 million people packed into the narrow Palestinian territory. The heavy strikes were a new blow to international efforts to reach a sustainable truce in the fighting, now in its fourth week.
At least 100 Palestinians were killed yesterday, including 36 who died in airstrikes and tank shelling on five homes, according to Palestinian health officials and the Palestinian Red Crescent. In one strike yesterday afternoon, ten members of one family were killed and 50 people were wounded in tank shelling in the northern Gaza town of Jebaliya, officials said.
That pushed the overall death toll since the conflict began on 8 July to at least 1,156, according to Gaza health ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Kidra.
Israel has reported 53 soldiers and three civilians killed.
In the West Bank, a leading PLO official offered a 24-hour truce yesterday, claiming he also spoke in the name of Hamas, but the Islamic militants said they want to hear from Israel first.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev declined comment.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday warned of a “prolonged” campaign against Hamas.
But it was not clear if Mr Netanyahu has decided to expand the Gaza conflict into an all-out effort to topple Hamas or planned to limit Israel’s operation to the previously stated goal of ending Hamas rocket fire and destroying Hamas’s sophisticated network of cross-border tunnels.
Already, the intensity and the scope of the current Gaza operation is on par with an invasion five years ago, which ended with a unilateral Israeli withdrawal after hitting Hamas hard.
Yesterday, Israeli warplanes carried out dozens of attacks, destroying the home of the Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, and damaging the offices of the movement’s Al-Aqsa satellite TV station, a central mosque in Gaza City and government offices.
Israel has targeted several homes of Hamas leaders but none have been killed – presumably because they have kept a low profile.
The scene at the Gaza power plant after two tank shells hit one of three fuel tanks was daunting.
Even before the shutdown, Gaza residents only had electricity for about three hours a day.
This means most of Gaza will now be without power, also hitting water supply pumps.
International calls for an unconditional ceasefire have been mounting in recent days, as the extent of the destruction in Gaza becomes more apparent.
Despite appeals for a cease-fire, both sides have been holding out for bigger gains.
Hamas has said it will not stop fighting until it wins international guarantees that a crippling border blockade of Gaza will be lifted.
Israel and Egypt had imposed the closure after Hamas seized Gaza in 2007, defeating forces loyal to Abbas.
Over the past year, Egypt has further tightened restrictions, shutting down hundreds of smuggling tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border that had provided crucial tax income to Hamas. The closure of the tunnels drove Hamas into a severe financial crisis.
Israel has said it is defending its citizens against attack from Gaza by hitting Hamas rocket launchers, weapons storage sites and military tunnels under the Gaza-Israel border.
Israel said its troops would not leave Gaza until they have demolished the tunnels which have been used by Hamas to sneak into Israel to try to carry out attacks.