JERUSALEM – Israeli soldiers and tank columns bisected the Gaza Strip on Sunday, isolating its largest city amid fierce clashes on multiple fronts with militant fighters.
At least 35 Palestinians died in confrontations with Israeli troops and from ongoing missile strikes and artillery barrages, according to local medical sources. More than 500 Palestinians have been killed since Dec. 27, when Israel began its current campaign against Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza. At least 2,000 Palestinians have been wounded.
In the face of mounting international calls for a cease-fire, including harsh criticism from the head of the United Nations, Israeli leaders pledged to continue their campaign to end the threat of rocket launches by Gazan militants at southern Israeli cities and towns.
“This operation was unavoidable,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his Cabinet on Sunday.
Olmert said the campaign, which started with a week of punishing airstrikes and escalated to a land incursion Saturday evening, was needed to “change the security reality in the south.”
Militant groups in the enclave, however, managed to continue firing rockets and mortar shells into southern Israel. At least 40 rockets were launched Sunday, causing widespread panic but only minor injuries, according to the Israeli army.
Palestinians reported clashes early today in eastern Gaza near the border with Israel, the Associated Press reported. Hamas militants fired rocket-propelled grenades and mortars at advancing Israeli tanks. Explosions could be heard in Gaza City as aircraft attacked buildings. There was no immediate word about casualties.
The homemade rockets are wildly inaccurate and rarely cause serious casualties; three Israeli civilians have been killed by rocket fire since the start of hostilities. But Israeli officials say that approximately 900,000 of their citizens are within range of the rocket fire and live in fear of sudden attack.
Throughout the Gaza Strip, most of the enclave’s 1.5 million Palestinian residents huddled indoors for safety, most venturing out only to line up for dwindling supplies of bread and household goods.
Dr. Moaiya Hassanain of Gaza City’s main Shifa Hospital said more than half the day’s casualties were civilians, including a mother and her four children killed by an Israeli tank shell east of Gaza City. The militant casualty count was probably much higher, Hassanain said, but it was too risky for ambulances and rescue crews to approach the conflict zone.
One ambulance, funded by the international aid organization Oxfam, was struck by an Israeli shell while trying to evacuate injured from the frontline community of Beit Lahiya, the organization announced. The impact killed one paramedic; a second paramedic lost his foot.
“The incident shows yet again that trying to fight a military campaign in the densely populated streets and alleys of the Gaza Strip will inevitably lead to civilian casualties. There are no safe areas, and Gazans who want to flee the fighting have been prevented from leaving the Strip,” Oxfam Country Director John Prideaux-Brune said in Jerusalem.
At least two Israeli armored thrusts sliced deep into the narrow coastal territory, essentially cutting off Gaza City’s approximately 400,000 residents from the rest of the strip. One force fought into the edges of the Jabaliya refugee camp, north of Gaza City; a second force pushed into the abandoned Jewish settlement of Netzarim, several miles south of Gaza City. Israel left Netzarim, along with other settlements, when it pulled out of Gaza in 2005.
The Netzarim incursion essentially cuts the densely packed territory into two parts. Hassanain, the Shifa Hospital official, maintained that there were 20 truckloads of needed medical aid in the southern end of the enclave unable to reach Gaza City, where most of the casualties were being brought.
As of late Sunday night, Israeli forces had yet to enter any of Gaza’s major population centers. Any attempt to do so probably would prompt a fierce street-to-street battle against militant forces with intimate knowledge of the dense urban terrain.
Reliable details from the battlefield were difficult to obtain Sunday night, with both Israel and Hamas making unconfirmed claims of casualties inflicted on the other side. Hamas’ military wing released a statement claiming that its fighters had killed nine Israeli soldiers and destroyed three tanks.
The Israeli army announced that one of its soldiers had been killed and another seriously injured in an exchange of gunfire near Jabaliya, and that 18 soldiers had been moderately injured. An army spokesman claimed that “dozens of Hamas gunmen had been hit” but wouldn’t speculate on how many were killed or wounded.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon conveyed his “extreme concern and disappointment” over the death toll in a phone call to Olmert and called for an immediate end to the operation, according to a U.N. statement Sunday.
A delegation led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to arrive in New York today to pressure the U.N. Security Council to demand a cease-fire. President George W. Bush is scheduled to meet with Ban on Tuesday to discuss the Gaza crisis.
Bush and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have refused to criticize the Israeli campaign or push for an early end to hostilities. Olmert on Sunday said he was “greatly encouraged” by Bush’s position.
At an emergency consultation of the Security Council on Saturday night, the U.S. blocked approval of a statement demanded by Arab countries that would have called for an immediate cease-fire. U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, echoing Israeli concerns, said a cease-fire needed to be “durable, sustainable and not time-limited.”
European and Middle Eastern leaders and diplomats continued intense tours of regional capitals in attempts to defuse a crisis that continues to stoke public passions. Protests were held in a number of cities; tens of thousands reportedly demonstrated in Turkey, and police in Lebanon battled demonstrators approaching the U.S. Embassy compound.
The Czech Republic, in its role as rotating president of the European Union, dispatched a team to the Middle East. French President Nicolas Sarkozy was also scheduled to arrive in Israel today. Israeli leaders consistently have rebuffed Sarkozy’s cease-fire proposal.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg toured the rocket-plagued Israeli south Sunday, expressing solidarity with Israelis. During the visit to the Gaza border town of Sderot, Bloomberg was briefly rushed to a bomb shelter when a missile warning siren went off.