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Israel masses tanks along Gaza border

Strikes on Hamas expand; 6,000 reservists called up

December 29, 2008|Ashraf Khalil and Rushdi abu Alouf

JERUSALEM AND GAZA CITY — Israeli warplanes expanded their assault Sunday on the Gaza Strip, launching missile strikes on the network of tunnels to Egypt that serve as a vital lifeline for the besieged enclave.

Other airstrikes targeted a large prison in downtown Gaza City and vehicles that the Israelis said were carrying Palestinian militants. Israeli tanks massed along the Gaza border as the Jewish state called up more than 6,000 reservists in possible preparation for a land assault against the Hamas movement, which controls the coastal strip.

As darkness fell, the situation on Gaza's southern border with Egypt was chaotic and fluid. Egyptian border police traded sporadic gunfire with militants amid reports that a large group of Gazans had tried to breach the border fence that Egypt has kept sealed for more than a year. One Palestinian and one Egyptian border police officer were killed by gunfire.

"About 100, 150 Palestinians jumped over the border fence to the Egyptian side," said Ahmed Radwan, speaking on the phone from the town of Rafah in southern Gaza. "They are about 300 meters [about 980 feet] into the Egyptian side but have been prevented by Egyptian forces from going any further."

Fighters from Hamas and other militant factions launched at least 30 rockets toward southern Israel, according to the Israeli army. That was fewer than half the number of projectiles launched Saturday as militants struck back after Israel began its aerial assault with strikes on police stations and security compounds throughout Gaza.

Israeli army Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi reportedly told the Cabinet on Sunday that 50% of Hamas' rocket-launching capabilities had been destroyed.

However, two of the Gazan rockets reached deeper into Israel than previously reported, landing near the coastal city of Ashdod, about 20 miles north of Gaza.

No serious injuries were reported, but the increase in the rockets' range seemed to confirm concerns that Hamas was developing the ability to target some of Israel's largest cities.

Israeli airstrikes hit the Hamas-affiliated Islamic University late Sunday night, causing minor injuries. A second missile attack struck a mosque in the Jabaliya refugee camp, killing seven people, according to local medical sources.

The two-day death toll in Gaza climbed to 303, with Palestinian medical officials saying that a third of the victims were civilians, a statement that could not be confirmed. An estimated 900 people had been injured.

The bloodshed, presented in grisly detail by Arab satellite television, roiled the Arab world, triggered protests in Europe and incensed Palestinians both in the occupied West Bank and in Israel.

Shopkeepers in the West Bank and in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem shut their doors in a near-total protest strike. Two Palestinians were killed Sunday in separate clashes with Israeli soldiers in the West Bank.

Anti-Israeli protests were staged in several Arab capitals, and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called on "all true believers in the world of Islam" to rush to the defense of Gazan civilians. Syria announced that it was suspending indirect talks with Israel, started this year with Turkish mediation.

About 1,400 people marched in Paris, most of them in the northern Barbes neighborhood, which has a large Muslim population. The demonstrators denounced the Israeli military operation and the casualties it has caused, carrying signs with slogans such as "Stop the massacre of innocents."

In London, where police made 10 arrests after a protest outside the Israeli Embassy involving about 700 people turned violent, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband reiterated hopes for an "urgent cease-fire and an immediate halt to violence."

Despite the reactions, Israeli leaders pledged to continue the campaign. Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his Cabinet that the operation was necessary "to restore normal life and quiet to residents of the south [of Israel] who, for many years, have suffered from unceasing rocket and mortar fire and terrorism designed to disrupt their lives."

Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006, but was shunned by Israel and all Western powers for its refusal to formally accept the Jewish state's right to exist.

The militant group took full control of Gaza in clashes with the rival Fatah faction after a unity government collapsed in summer 2007. Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, now controls only the West Bank.

Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005. Since then Hamas and other groups have routinely launched rockets and mortar shells toward southern Israeli towns. The makeshift projectiles are wildly inaccurate and rarely cause deaths or serious injuries. But Israelis along the border are forced to live with the constant fear of attack; a barrage Saturday killed a man in the Israeli town of Netivot.

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