| 0 comments ]


Israeli troops and tanks crossed into the Gaza Strip under the cover of darkness Saturday, signaling the start of a bloody ground offensive that military leaders warned would not be short.

Hamas, which seized control of Gaza a year and a half ago and has been attacking Israel with rockets, responded with defiant threats.

"We will fight till our last breath. Your invasion of Gaza will not be a cakewalk. Gaza will be your cemetery," Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan said.

Israeli officials called up tens of thousands of reservists and warned the incursion would not end quickly.

"It won't be easy and it won't be short," Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a televised address. "We do not seek war, but we will not abandon our citizens to the ongoing Hamas attacks."

The escalation prompted Arab nations to ask the United Nations Security Council to call for an immediate ceasefire - echoing U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's demand for an end to the violence.

The invasion started a week after Israel began slamming Hamas targets with air strikes, aiming to end rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza.

A column of military vehicles backed by combat helicopters rolled into northern Gaza as forces marched across the border.

Gun battles could be heard, and the night sky was illuminated by heavy artillery gunfire that sent bright lights streaking over the densely packed neighborhoods.

It was unclear how deeply the forces planned to drive into the strip, but security officials said the objective was not to reoccupy Gaza but to seize areas Hamas was using to launch rockets into Israel.

"Residents of Gaza are not the target of the operation," the Israeli Defense Force said in a statement.

"Those who use civilians, the elderly, women and children as 'human shields' are responsible for any and all injury to the civilian population," the statement said.

More than 400 Palestinians have been killed in a week of air strikes by Israel.

Before Saturday's troop movements, Israeli artillery pounded 40 targets, including a mosque where at least 11 people, including some children, died.

Hamas launched six rockets into Israeli territory, striking a house and a bomb shelter in the southern city of Ashkelon. There were no injuries reported.

With some 10,000 troops massed on the border ready to charge forward, the army dropped leaflets in downtown Gaza City early Saturday, warning people to stay off the streets.

Many residents spent the day trying to stockpile food and water, but after eight days of fighting, supplies were scarce and bread lines stretched for blocks.

As the invasion began, most people heeded the warnings and the city appeared abandoned with families huddled in their homes around the radio.

The Israeli Army also jammed Al-Aqsa TV, which is run by Hamas, and a 15-minute address was broadcast every hour by an Israeli speaking in Arabic.

"Hamas has abandoned you. Do not let Hamas use your children as human shields," said the broadcast.

Holed up in her Gaza City apartment, high school student Nour Saroor, 17, listened for news with her family.

"We are going to die," she said. "They are going to kill us. I am afraid to die," she said.

There was widespread international concern at the sudden escalation of violence.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband repeated calls for an "immediate ceasefire" and said the situation caused "alarm and dismay."

The French Foreign Ministry said, "France condemns the Israeli ground offensive against Gaza as it condemns the continuation of rocket firing."

A White House spokesman said President Bush was briefed in the afternoon by officials who have been in contact with the Israelis.


0 comments

Post a Comment