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Israel vows an 'all-out war' on Hamas

Raids continue in Gaza as forces mass on the border; the Palestinian toll is 364. Rocket fire kills three Israelis.

December 30, 2008|Ashraf Khalil and Rushdi abu Alouf

JERUSALEM AND GAZA CITY — Residents of the Gaza Strip braced Monday for a long-feared Israeli tank incursion as warplanes pounded the tiny bottled-up coastal enclave for a third day.

The West Bank-based Palestinian Authority announced it was suspending peace talks with Israel to protest the Israeli campaign in Gaza against the militant Hamas movement, which controls the territory. The Gazan death toll rose to 364, many of them civilians, with about 1,400 wounded, local medical sources said.

In Israel, Defense Minister Ehud Barak promised an "all-out war against Hamas and its kind." Speaking at a stormy session of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, he said, "This operation will be widened and deepened as we see fit." Barak promised "war to the bitter end" to neutralize the rocket fire from Palestinian militants in Gaza that has plagued southern Israeli towns.

Several Israeli Arab legislators were ejected for heckling.

"There are those who are profiting from Palestinian blood in order to get elected," said Mohammed Barakeh, before being thrown out.

Among targets of Monday's airstrikes were Hamas' Interior Ministry in Gaza City and the homes of two senior military commanders in the movement. The ministry, evacuated days ago, had no casualties. But in the Jabaliya refugee camp, seven civilians died in the strike on the home of Maher Zaqout, a commander with Hamas' military wing. Zaqout was not home; like many of Hamas' senior leaders, he went into hiding when the attacks began.

Hamas and other factions fired at least 50 rockets into southern Israel, killing three Israelis on Monday and injuring dozens -- among the deadliest launches by Hamas to date. The group has shown a capability to strike deeper into Israel despite the ongoing assault.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told reporters Monday that Israel is trying to avoid civilian casualties whereas Hamas is "looking for children to kill."

Israel declared the area around Gaza a closed military zone, ordering out journalists as troops and tanks built up outside the enclave. The number of Israeli troops on the border has reportedly doubled, and officials have approved the calling up of more than 6,000 reservists. The expulsion of the journalists deepened fears among Gazans that a tank assault was imminent.

Israel closed the main border crossing with Gaza at the start of the attacks Saturday, preventing most Western journalists from entering Gaza. Limited shipments of humanitarian and medical supplies have been allowed in from Israel and through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.

The Israeli offensive continued to inflame Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

A Palestinian laborer was arrested after stabbing four Israelis in a West Bank settlement Monday, leaving one in serious condition.

Scattered clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers continued throughout the West Bank, particularly in Hebron, where 18 people were hospitalized, some because of tear gas inhalation or injuries from rubber bullets.

Many shops in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem were shuttered in protest, and a firebomb was thrown at the entrance of Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital late Monday.

The Palestinian Authority -- controlled by the Fatah faction, Hamas' bitter enemy -- has struggled to control demonstrations as public anger rises. Palestinian police have broken up numerous protests, and several officials warned of the dangers of unrest spreading through the West Bank. Hamas leaders in Syria and Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, head of Lebanon's militant group Hezbollah, have called for a third intifada, or uprising.

Hamas defeated Fatah in January 2006 parliamentary elections, but it was shunned by Israel and most Western powers for its refusal to formally accept the Jewish state's right to exist. After a unity government collapsed in June 2007, Hamas routed Fatah and took full control of Gaza.

Fatah now controls only the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority, from which Hamas members were expelled, and its leaders walk a tightrope between criticizing Hamas and appearing to support the Israeli assault. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas courted controversy Sunday by blaming the violence on Hamas, for not renewing a six-month-long truce with Israel that expired Dec. 19.

On Monday, the Palestinian Authority made a public show of support for victims in Gaza. In the West Bank city of Ramallah, senior Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Korei announced that talks with Israel would be suspended.

"There can be no negotiations while this Israeli aggression is continuing," Korei told reporters.

The move was largely symbolic; the negotiations, intended to produce an agreement that creates an independent Palestinian state, have shown scant progress after more than a year. What little momentum the talks possessed has dissipated in recent months as Israeli politicians shifted focus to national elections scheduled for Feb. 10.

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