Israel Approves Tougher War on Hamas

GAZA CITY ~ Israel approved an even tougher war on Hamas on Wednesday, warning residents to flee southern Gaza ahead of planned bombing of cross-border tunnels, as the Palestinian death toll passed 700.

After a brief lull to allow Gaza’s beleaguered population to hunt for food and fuel, Defense Minister Ehud Barak was given the green light by the security cabinet to order a deeper offensive into Gaza towns as part of the campaign to halt Hamas cross-border rocket attacks.

But Barak has also decided to send an envoy to Cairo on Thursday to get details on an Egyptian ceasefire plan, which secured widespread international backing amid mounting concern about the scale of the civilian casualties.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he hoped the talks would “lead to conditions which will allow” the end of the Israeli offensive, which began on December 27 and has so far killed 702 Palestinians and wounded 3,100, Gaza medics say.

Olmert chaired the security cabinet meeting in Jerusalem which “approved continuing the ground offensive, including a third stage that would broaden it by pushing deeper into populated areas,” a senior defence official said.

The final decision will be left with Barak, the official added.

Israeli shelling and air attacks around Gaza City were halted for three hours as a humanitarian gesture. Hamas also halted rocket attacks.

People and cars quickly filled the streets of Gaza City and long queues formed outside bakeries which soon ran out of bread. Aid groups sent dozens of truckloads of food and fuel across the border during the truce.

But the fighting quickly resumed, inflicting new deaths.

A man, his three sons and a nephew were killed in one attack at the Jabaliya refugee camp and an air strike killed two men in Khan Yunis on Wednesday night, medics said. Witnesses said the pair belonged to Hamas.

There was also an air strike on a mosque in northern Gaza City, but no casualties were reported.

And Islamic Jihad said warplanes destroyed the homes of three of its military commanders, without causing casualties.

Israel warned thousands of people in the Rafah zone on the Egyptian border to leave their houses or face air strikes.

“You have until 8am” on Thursday, said leaflets that were dropped by the Israeli military.

The Rafah area is criss-crossed by what the Israeli army estimates to be some 300 tunnels and what local residents have told AFP are 500 subterranean passages from Gaza into Egypt.

They are used to smuggle supplies and arms into Gaza, an impoverished enclave that Israel has virtually locked down since Hamas seized power in June 2007.

Ending the smuggling is a key element of the ceasefire plan proposed by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The proposal calls for an “immediate ceasefire,” Israeli-Palestinian talks on securing Gaza’s borders, reopening border crossings and possible Palestinian reconciliation talks under Egyptian mediation.

Egypt said it has asked the International Committee of the Red Cross to open a humanitarian corridor from its border with Gaza for aid and evacuating the wounded.

The Hamas leadership announced it was studying the plan and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas was set to go to Cairo for talks.

The United States signalled it was open to the idea of a ceasefire but the White House said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was clarifying details of the Egyptian plan.

Russia’s top Middle East envoy met exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Damascus on Wednesday. The Russian foreign ministry said Meshaal declared himself ready to take part in a “political-diplomatic solution” but that “the imposition of capitulatory conditions by Israel was unacceptable.”

The Israeli government has faced mounting international criticism over its offensive, its deadliest ever in Gaza.

Cardinal Renato Martino, the Vatican’s justice and peace minister, was quoted by the online Italian daily Il Sussidiario as saying Gaza had been turned into a “big concentration camp” by two weeks of Israeli bombardments.

Israel responded by saying the comments were “based on Hamas propaganda.”

Hundreds of Hamas rockets fired into Israel over the past 12 days have killed four people and wounded dozens. Six Israeli soldiers have also been killed in combat.

Israel was also slammed by the United Nations, which expressed outrage and demanded an independent investigation after military strikes on three UN-run schools in Gaza on Tuesday killed 48 people.

Forty-three people were killed in the deadliest strike, at Jabaliya. The army said its investigation found militants had fired at Israeli forces from inside the school and Hamas militants were among those killed.

The United Nations denied this.

“Following an initial investigation, we are 99.9 percent sure that there were no militants or militant activities in the school and the school compound,” Christopher Gunness, spokesman for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said.

Israel’s Offensive in Gaza: a Timeline

– Israel launches “Operation Cast Lead” with a massive air assault on Hamas in the Gaza Strip in a bid to halt rocket attacks on its territory.

– Warplanes bomb 40 tunnels along the Egypt-Gaza border to try to prevent Hamas being supplied with arms.

– Defense Minister Ehud Barak speaks of “all-out war against Hamas.”

– Israeli naval vessel collides with boat carrying activists and medical supplies for the Gaza Strip.

– Israeli air strikes continue. Rockets fired from Gaza land more than 40 kilometers inside Israel.

– Senior Hamas official Nizar Rayan killed in an Israeli air raid.

– Thousands of Palestinians protest in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
– US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calls for a ceasefire that would permanently prevent Hamas from firing rockets into Israel.

– The Israeli military announces that a “large number” of troops have entered the Gaza Strip.
– Defense Minister Barak signs an order calling up thousands of reservists.

– Thousands of Israeli troops backed by tanks battle Hamas fighters.
– Israeli forces surround Gaza City. Witnesses say Israel controls a key highway, cutting the territory in half.

– Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni rejects European calls for an immediate ceasefire.

– Israeli tanks supported by helicopter gunships move into Khan Yunis in southern Gaza.
– Te Israeli army says three of its soldiers were killed when hit by “friendly” tank fire.
– First major battles inside Gaza City.
– Israeli strikes near three UN schools kill 48 people who had taken refuge, medics say. Israel says Hamas “terror operatives” were on the premises, something the UN denies.
– Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak invites Israel “without delay” to discuss security on the Egypt-Gaza border. Mubarak also meets French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
– Al-Qaeda issues an online message attributed to Ayman al-Zawahiri, urging Muslims to attack Israeli and Western targets.

– Gaza medics say that at least 702 Palestinians have been killed, including 220 children, and more than 3,100 wounded, since the Israeli attacks began.
– Israel says six of its soldiers have been killed and 83 wounded in the ground offensive, while four people, including a soldier, have been killed by Hamas rockets fired into its territory.
– Israel temporarily stops bombing Gaza to allow aid into the territory. Hamas says it will stop firing rockets into Israel for as long as the Israeli attacks cease.
– A divided UN Security Council weighs the Gaza conflict, facing two competing texts on prospects for an immediate ceasefire.
– Israel drops leaflets warning residents to leave southern Gaza ahead of planned bombings of tunnels leading into Egypt, witnesses say.
– Israeli security cabinet gives Defense Minister Ehud Barak green light for tougher war on Hamas.
– Barak aide due in Cairo on Thursday to discuss Egyptian proposal to end war in Gaza.
– Israel slams senior Vatican official for comparing the Gaza Strip to a “concentration camp.”
– The radical Shiite Iraqi movement of Moqtada al-Sadr threatens attacks on American targets inside Iraq over US support for Israeli assault on Gaza.
– Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah warns “all possibilities” open against Israel.

– Dozens of Israeli tanks enter southern Gaza Strip, witnesses say.
– Israeli warplanes strike suspected tunnels in southern Gaza town of Rafah, witnesses say.

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