Mitchell Prothero
The National
January 2, 2009 - 1:00am

An Israeli ground invasion of Gaza looked increasingly likely last night as a hospital in Ashqelon, 10km from the Gaza Strip, was evacuated to make way possibly for mass casualties from a ground assault, Israeli television reported.

An Israeli military source reached by telephone said the move was indicative of preparations for a ground assault of the strip.

The movements occurred as a top militant commander in Gaza yesterday said his fighters were preparing to take on the Israeli military in close combat, as Israel’s air and sea bombardment of the strip continued for the sixth straight day.

Israel has been massing tanks and troops on the Gaza border and authorised the call-up of 9,000 reservists in recent days.

Israel also said it will allow about 400 foreigners living in the Gaza Strip to leave today, a Palestinian official said, quoting a humanitarian agency which said it had received Israeli notification, another sign of an impending invasion.

Earlier yesterday Israel killed a top Hamas leader, Nizar Rayyan, bringing the death toll from the attacks to 410, with at least 1700 wounded.

Militants continued to bombard southern Israel with a combination of homemade rockets and larger, more professional weapons, which have put around 700,000 Israelis within range of the attacks for the first time in the conflict. Throughout the day in southern Israel, warning sirens sent commuters and civilians running for cover as rockets fell on cities, towns and settlements throughout the area, but no fatalities were reported, according to an Israeli police spokesman.

France had continued to lead diplomatic efforts yesterday for a ceasefire in Gaza as Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister, arrived in Paris for talks.

But with the civilian death toll mounting and the suffering in Gaza growing as water food and electricity grow ever more scarce, Hamas and other militant groups have begun bracing for an invasion.

In an exclusive interview with The National, Abu Bilal, the commander of Islamic Jihad’s forces in the Rafah Refugee Camp in southern Gaza, said though his group’s rocket attacks were militarily ineffectual against Israel except for their psychological impact, the group, which operates independently from the dominant Hamas movement, is literally praying for a ground invasion.

“We can’t do anything [to hurt the Israelis] but fire the rockets and hope they enter Gaza,” Abu Bilal said. “We are praying for the tanks to come so we can show them new things. We have made many preparations for the coming battle and all of our fighters wait for the chance to kill them,” he declared.

Abu Bilal refused to elaborate on what those surprises may be, but they are likely to mimic techniques perfected by Hizbollah in southern Lebanon. In recent years, numerous Islamic Jihad members have slipped out of Gaza to train alongside Hizbollah members in Iran and Lebanon, according to several sources close to the group. The militants are thought to have learned numerous lessons from the bombardment of Lebanon in 2006, when Hizbollah militants shocked Israel with their ability to ambush tank units using advanced weaponry supplied by Iran.

But whether the Gaza militants have access to the same sophisticated anti-tank weaponry, as Hizbollah does, remains unclear. More important, Gaza lacks the rugged hills and valleys used for cover by Hizbollah in hiding its weaponry from Israeli fighter jets, and Palestinian militant groups in Gaza have typically had less training and discipline than those of Hizbollah.

Islamic Jihad generally co-operates with Hamas, but lacks that group’s political and social organisation, preferring to concentrate only on armed resistance. The two groups often collaborate on military operations and Abu Bilal said the Israeli assaults on Gaza, which began on Saturday, have unified the usually fractious and bickering groups of Gazan militants, despite a number of competing agendas.

“Jihad Islamiyya, Hamas, Izzedine Qassam Brigades, the Popular Resistance Committee, even people left over from Fatah all co-operate when it is time to fight the Israelis,” he said. “When the tanks come, we come together to fight.”

In the Jabaliya refugee camp yesterday, Israeli strikes killed the most senior member of Hamas thus far in the conflict.

Nizar Rayyan, a religious leader who advocated the resumption of suicide attacks against Israeli targets, was killed in his home along with 11 others, including two of his four wives and four of his 12 children, Palestinian health officials said.

Rayyan, according to a Hamas radio broadcast, had refused instructions to flee his home like most other Hamas leaders. He was known as a prayer leader at the Martyr’s Mosque in Jabaliya and frequently appeared in public armed, alongside members of the Hamas military wing. He often served as a spiritual adviser to both the Hamas political and military wings and would often co-ordinate the group’s political and military operations, according to people close to Hamas.

Earlier in the day, a series of air strikes in Gaza City levelled additional symbols of Hamas’s rule over the costal enclave. Just after nightfall, a five-storey building thought to be used by Hamas was destroyed by an air strike.

Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in mid-2007 after a prolonged power struggle with the more secular Fatah movement. Israel responded by blockading the strip; allowing only the most basic food and medicine supplies, leaving the entire population dependent on smuggling tunnels for most consumer goods and staples. But since the operation by the Israelis began last Saturday Israel has targeted the tunnels and greatly reduced the amount of food, fuel and electricity allowed to enter the area.

Gaza City has been mostly without power for several days as work crews fearing Israeli strikes have been unable to repair damaged power lines.

In the Rafah refugee camp, which ran out of food supplies several days ago, a few lorries of basic goods arrived for the first time in almost two weeks according to residents.

UN officials at a warehouse complex that distributes food aid announced to the residents of the southernmost camp, along the Egyptian border, that it had supplies on hand to supply about 500 people per day. But with more than 150,000 residents and little food, the aid is merely a trickle.

“The situation remains alarming,” said John Holmes, the UN humanitarian chief. “Hospitals are obviously still struggling very much to cope with the number of casualties. We have continued to get some medical supplies in and to help them cope, but this remains difficult and fragile.”

Civilians also continued to flee from along the Egyptian border fence, where it is believed part of any Israeli invasion will begin and more than 5,000 people were seen taking up temporary residence in schools and mosques within the centre of Rafah.

The Egyptian government did allow 34 people to cross into Egypt to receive medical care in Egyptian hospitals.

Dr Mohammed el Homs, director of the tiny Abu Yousef Hospital in Rafah said his clinic, which was full two days ago, continues to turn away patients, as does al Shifa, due to a lack of beds and supplies. Wounded are diverted instead to a hospital in the Khan Younis refugee camp in central Gaza, which has seen far less fighting than the two extremities.

“Sixty more people were wounded today in Rafah alone,” said Dr Mohammed. “We cannot do anything but clean their wounds a little. We have no medicine, no electricity and no ability to give operations. Now that al Shifa is also turning away the wounded, I don’t know what we will do.”


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