JERUSALEM – The Israeli military launched a major operation against Hamas fighters in the Gaza Strip on Saturday, killing about 60 people – half of them civilians – and sending in a large contingent of ground troops to stop rockets streaming daily out of the territory into southern Israel.
The violence, which also resulted in the deaths of two Israeli soldiers, imperiled an already fragile peace process just days before U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to arrive to try to jump-start the flagging talks. Both sides indicated Saturday that the intensified conflict could cause the negotiations to collapse. That would mark a heavy blow for the Bush administration, which has made Middle East peace a top priority for its final year.
The fighting Saturday was the worst yet following a significant escalation Wednesday. In the four days since an Israeli missile destroyed a van carrying five Hamas members suspected of plotting an attack inside Israel, 94 Palestinians have been killed and more than 300 have been injured, according to hospital sources in Gaza. During the same period, at least 180 rockets and mortar shells have been fired into Israel, causing one death and 11 injuries, the Israeli military said.
Calls for help
Palestinian leaders called on the international community to step in to force Israel to stop the attacks and suggested that peace talks should be halted until the violence subsides. They also warned that Israel’s tactics would backfire by radicalizing the Palestinian population.
“It is beyond comprehension,” said Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki. “What they are doing is pushing people beyond their limits. They are creating a very strong reaction among the people so the people will become more desperate and hard-line. Israel is not securing its own interests by this kind of massive killing.”
Israeli officials have warned that there will be more to come and that operations may intensify, as long as Hamas continues to fire its rockets. Israeli officials say they are especially concerned that Iranian-made rockets have landed in Ashkelon. The coastal city has a population of 120,000, and with its center about six miles north of Gaza, it had previously been out of range of the crude Qassam rockets that have been the mainstay of Hamas attacks. On Saturday, however, seven rockets with greater range and lethality, known as Grads, landed there.
“This escalation is very dangerous,” said Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. “You can’t overstate the importance of the shooting on Ashkelon. This is a major Israeli city that is now being targeted by the rockets.”
Fighting and chaos
In Gaza on Saturday, conditions were grim and chaotic, as hospitals already suffering under the strain of a crushing economic boycott tried to handle a massive influx of trauma patients. Hospital officials said seven children and eight women were among those killed. The officials said that of the 60 dead, half were believed to be fighters and 22 had been confirmed as such.
The most intense fighting raged in a densely populated area east of the Jabalya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip. An Israeli security official said Saturday night that “a big Israeli force” had entered the area Friday and was waging “a wide ground operation.” The official would not disclose the number of troops involved. But it was believed to be the largest incursion of Israeli forces into Gaza since Israel withdrew from the area in 2005 and the deadliest single day for Palestinians since 2000.
Early today, an Israeli airstrike destroyed the office of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, although he was not there. He has been in hiding for weeks.
The Israeli raids Saturday began at 3 a.m. with a special forces operation, and the assault continued throughout the day, with tanks and Apache helicopters using heavy fire to back up ground troops. Seven Israeli soldiers were wounded in the clashes, in addition to the two dead.
Television footage showed desperate scenes at the hospitals, with doctors frantically treating incoming patients and women wailing over dead children. In the streets, ambulances whizzed by the remains of buildings that had been blown apart.