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Israel keeps up air assaults on Gaza

2/01/2009 - 11:04

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) - Israeli warplanes struck targets in Gaza on Friday and Islamist fighters fired rockets into the Israeli port of Ashkelon, dashing international hopes of a ceasefire to end seven days of fighting.

The Israeli air force bombed around 20 targets, killing two Palestinians in a house, and raising the Gaza death toll to at least 414 since last Saturday. The rockets injured two people slightly in Israel, which has lost 4 dead in the conflict.

Israel said its air force targeted a weapons arsenal, a vehicle that transported anti-aircraft missiles, rocket launchers and a tunnel used for arms smuggling.

Bracing for protests and retaliatory violence a day after it killed a senior Hamas leader in an air strike on his Gaza home, Israel sealed off the occupied West Bank to deny entry to most Palestinians and deployed heavy security at checkpoints.

Nizar Rayyan, an Islamic cleric who was one of Hamas's most hardline political leaders, had called for renewed suicide bombings inside Israel. He was the highest ranking Hamas official to be killed in the current offensive.

Israeli armoured forces remained massed on the Gaza frontier in preparation for a possible ground invasion, ignoring international calls for a halt to the conflict.

Some 1,850 people have been wounded in Gaza in the deadliest conflict in four decades. It was launched by Israel to put an end to rocket fire which intensified after the Hamas rulers of Gaza declared an end to their six-month truce on December 19.

A quarter of the dead were civilians, the United Nations estimates. Four Israelis were killed in rocket attacks from Gaza since the Israeli offensive began last Saturday.

Analysts said Israeli leaders felt under pressure to act ahead of a February 10 national election, and surveys indicate the assaults may boost support for centrist candidates Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, against frontrunner Benjamin Netanyahu of the right-wing Likud party.

Two Israelis were injured when two rockets struck the Israeli city of Ashkelon on Friday, medics said.

The latest rocket attacks followed Israeli military air strikes on about 20 Hamas targets early on Friday, including a house destroyed in Gaza City.

MOSQUE BOMBED

Late on Thursday night, Israeli war planes bombed the Jabalya mosque. Israeli security officials said it was a meeting place and command post for Hamas militants and the large number of secondary explosions after the strike indicated that rockets, missiles and other weapons had been stored there.

Hamas official Ayman Taha called to avenge the killing of Rayyan. "The blood of Sheikh Nizar Rayyan and the blood of other martyrs will never be wasted and the enemy will pay a heavy price for the crimes it has committed," Taha said.

Two of Rayyan's four wives and seven of his children were killed in the strike on his home in Jebalya refugee camp.

Black-bearded Rayyan, 49, was a preacher at Jabalya's "mosque of martyrs" who mentored suicide bombers. With a cartridge belt around his stocky frame, he would sometimes patrol the streets of Gaza with Hamas fighters.

Israel says its strikes in Gaza have been effective.

"I think that even now, after a few days of operation we have achieved changes," Livni said after talks in Paris with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, where she rejected a proposed 48-hour respite in fighting.

Livni said there was "no humanitarian crisis in the Strip, and therefore there is no need for a humanitarian truce" and that Israel has been permitting medical, food and other supplies into Gaza during the offensive.

Seventy trucks carrying humanitarian supplies crossed into the Gaza Strip from Israel on Thursday. But medics say their needs are acute and power blackouts are increasing.

A humanitarian agency has said it was told Israel would let 400 foreigners leave the Gaza Strip on Friday. Most resident foreigners are spouses of Gaza Palestinians and their children.

Turkey, starting a rotating membership at the United Nations Security Council, urged Israel to end the offensive and lift its blockade against the coastal strip. But the council adjourned an emergency session without a vote on Thursday.

Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, whose country holds the European Union presidency, said EU foreign ministers would visit the region, possibly Monday, when Sarkozy plans to visit.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said that if a diplomatic solution could be found that ensured better security for southern Israel, the government would consider it.

Israeli officials said any truce would require international monitoring to ensure Hamas lives up to its obligations.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said Israeli attacks must stop before any truce proposals could be considered. Israel must also lift its economic blockade of Gaza and open border crossings.

(Additional reporting by Adam Entous and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem, Patrick Worsnip at United Nations and James Mackenzie in Paris; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Jon Boyle)


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