Gaza braced for invasion after Israeli strikes

Israeli soldiers sit atop a tank on the Israeli side of the border with the Gaza Strip. Picture: Getty
Israeli soldiers sit atop a tank on the Israeli side of the border with the Gaza Strip. Picture: Getty
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THE Gaza Strip was braced for a ground war with Israel last night after another day of air bombardments destroyed buildings, killed at least eight Palestinians and injured dozens more.

Israel bombarded the ­Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip with nearly 200 air strikes, widening its assault on Gaza’s rocket bases to include the police headquarters in Gaza City, which set off a blaze that engulfed nearby houses and cars. The headquarters of ­Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya was flattened in the attack.

The Israeli military has massed troops, tanks and armoured vehicles along the border with Gaza and approved the call-up of 75,000 reservists, signalling an invasion of the densely populated seaside strip could take place as soon as today.

Doctors said a total of 42 Palestinians have been killed and 345 wounded since Israel launched the aerial campaign against the Palestinian enclave last Wednesday.

Almost half of those killed are reported to be civilians. They include eight children and a pregnant woman. ­Hamas’s military leader Ahmed Jabari was killed last Wednesday and a senior commander was killed on Friday.

The 25-mile long Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated places in the world, and half of its 1.6 million population are children, dozens of whom have been injured in the latest attacks.

Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said yesterday that the Israeli government wanted “peace and quiet” from the Hamas-launched rocket attacks that have plagued southern Israel in recent years. He said the operation would end when Israeli citizens were safe, adding that all options, including a ground attack, were “on the table”.

The Israeli army said four of its soldiers were injured by a rocket fired from Gaza yesterday. But the country’s Iron Dome defence system successfully intercepted a Gaza rocket aimed at Tel Aviv. People who took shelter as the air raid sirens went off cheered as the weapon was intercepted.

In the Israeli Mediterranean port of Ashdod, a rocket ripped into balconies, injuring five people, police said.

However, as Israel stepped up the campaign against Gaza, the country faced mounting international pressure last night to resolve the situation peacefully.

Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague have urged both Israel and the Palestinians to halt the violence.

Yesterday, US President Barack Obama called Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to discuss how the two countries could help bring an end to the escalating violence.

Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser, said that the United States “wants the same thing as the Israelis want,” which is an end to rocket attacks on ­Israel by Palestinian militants in Gaza. However he said that the United States is emphasising diplomacy and “de-escalation” as keys to solving the conflict.

In a call to Netanyahu, Obama discussed “de-escalating” the situation, adding that the president “reiterated US support for Israel’s right to defend itself, and expressed regret over the loss of Israeli and Palestinian civilian lives”.

Obama also spoke to Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. Morsi has called the Israeli raids “a blatant aggression against humanity” and promised that Egypt “will not leave Gaza on its own”.

Ties between Hamas and Egypt have strengthened since Morsi’s election this year, following last year’s Arab revolution, and Hamas was originally formed as an offshoot of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.

On Friday, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil paid a high-profile visit to Gaza, denouncing what he called Israeli aggression and saying Cairo was ready to mediate a truce.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is also expected to visit Israel and Egypt this week to push for a ceasefire.

Yesterday Erdogan vowed support for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip before a meeting to discuss the violence in Cairo.

Erdogan described Egypt’s uprising last year as a point of hope for Palestinians. Meanwhile, hundreds of people protested outside the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, where Arab foreign ministers are meeting to discuss Israel’s air assault on Gaza.

Egyptian President Mursi was expected to hold four-way talks with the Qatari emir, Erdogan and Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal last night to discuss the Gaza crisis.

Israel has launched some 700 air strikes since the start of its massive air campaign on Wednesday with the declared goal of deterring Hamas from launching rockets.

Hamas, shunned by the West over its refusal to recognise Israel, says its cross-border attacks are in response to Israeli strikes against Palestinian fighters in Gaza.

“We have not limited ourselves in means or in time,” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Israel’s Channel One television. “We hope that it will end as soon as possible, but that will be only after all the objectives have been achieved.”

Hamas, an Islamist movement, has ruled Gaza since 2007. Israel pulled settlers out of Gaza in 2005 but maintains a blockade of the territory. Israel revealed yesterday Hamas fighters have fired more than 580 rockets over the border, 367 of which hit southern Israel, and 222 of which were intercepted by its Iron Dome anti-missile system.

The Tunisian foreign minister visited the Gaza Strip yesterday and denounced Israeli attacks on the Palestinian enclave as unacceptable and against international law.

“Israel should understand that many things have changed and that lots of water has run in the Arab river,” Rafik Abdesslem said as he surveyed Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh’s office, reduced to rubble in a morning air strike.

At a late night session last Friday, Israel’s cabinet decided to more than double the reserve troop quota set for the Gaza offensive to 75,000.

Although the Israeli government stressed that the move did not necessarily mean all would be called up or that an invasion would follow, tanks and self-propelled guns were seen near the sandy border zone yesterday Around 16,000 reservists have already been summoned to active duty.

The Gaza conflagration has stirred the pot of a Middle East already boiling from two years of Arab revolution and a Syrian civil war that threatens to spread beyond its borders.

Hamas’s armed wing claimed responsibility for yesterday’s rocket attack on Tel Aviv, saying it had fired a longer-range, Iranian-designed Fajr-5 at the city.

The Israeli army said it had zeroed in on a number of government buildings during the night, including Haniyeh’s office, the Hamas Interior Ministry and a police compound.

Taher al-Nono, a spokesman for the Hamas government, held a news conference near the rubble of the prime minister’s office and pledged: “We will declare victory from here.”

A three-storey house belonging to Hamas official Abu Hassan Salah was also destroyed, with at least 30 people pulled from the rubble.

In reality, Hamas fighters are no match for the Israeli military. The last Gaza war, involving a three-week Israeli air blitz and ground invasion over the New Year period of 2008-09, killed more than 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians. Thirteen Israelis died.

But few believe Israeli military action can snuff out militant rocket fire entirely without a reoccupation of Gaza, an option all but ruled out because it risks major casualties and an international outcry.

While Hamas rejects the Jewish state’s existence. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who rules in areas of the nearby West Bank, does recognise Israel, but peace talks between the two sides have been frozen since 2010.