Ibrahim Barzak, Josef Federman
The Associated Press
January 10, 2009 - 1:00am

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli forces pounded dozens of targets and edged closer to Gaza City on Saturday while southern Israel came under renewed rocket fire after one of its quietest nights in the two-week offensive against Hamas.

In the day's bloodiest incident, an Israeli tank shell landed outside a home in the northern Gaza town of Jebaliya, killing nine people as they sat outside in their garden. Separately, a woman was killed by an Israeli airstrike in the southern town of Rafah.

The Israeli military said more than 15 militants were killed in heavy fighting Saturday with its ground forces inside Gaza. Its aircraft attacked more than 40 targets throughout Gaza, striking 10 rocket-launching sites, weapons-storage facilities, smuggling tunnels, an anti-aircraft missile launcher and gunmen. Flames and smoke could be seen rising into the sky over Gaza City.

Israel has come under international criticism for the rising number of civilians killed in the fighting. Paramedics said the nine casualties were from the same clan and included two children and two women.

"Residents brought them to the hospital in a civilian car, they put them all in the trunk because their bodies were mangled," said hospital administrator Adham Hakim. "We identified them a little after separating their bodies in the morgue."

The Israeli army had no immediate comment, but has repeatedly accused Hamas militants of using residential areas for cover. Earlier this week, an Israeli attack outside a U.N. school killed nearly 40 people. Both Israel and Palestinian witnesses said militants carried out an attack from the area moments earlier.

Israel launched the offensive on Dec. 27 to halt years of Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel. A week later, ground troops moved in, with artillery and tank fire that has contributed to a surge in civilian casualties.

Palestinian medical officials say more than 800 Palestinians have been killed, roughly half of them civilians. Thirteen Israelis have been killed — four of them by militant rockets, the rest in battle in Gaza. Five soldiers were lightly wounded in Saturday's fighting.

The fighting raged after both Israel and Hamas ignored a U.N. resolution calling for an immediate and durable cease-fire that would lead to the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza.

Israel has dismissed the Security Council resolution passed Thursday as impractical, while Hamas, whose government in Gaza is not recognized internationally, is angry it was not consulted about the diplomatic efforts.

Some of the heaviest fighting Saturday occurred on the strategic coastal road north of Gaza City, Palestinian security officials said. Israeli forces moved to within about 1 mile of the city before pulling back slightly.

While Israel has largely taken control of the road, militants continue to operate from hidden positions in the area. The road is often used to fire rockets into Israel or attack Israeli navy boats off the Mediterranean coast.

In a possible sign of progress for the military, no rockets were fired into Israel overnight, a sharp drop from the dozens of projectiles that were launched in the early days of the offensive.

Israeli military officials cautioned against reading too much into the lull, and by Saturday morning, 10 rockets had landed in Israel, the army said. One struck an apartment building in the southern city of Ashkelon, lightly wounding two people and causing extensive damage to the structure.

The offensive has caused extensive damage throughout Gaza, fueling fears of an impending humanitarian crisis. The United Nations estimates two-thirds of Gaza's 1.4 million people are without electricity, and half don't have running water.

The Israeli military said it would halt the fire in Gaza for three hours on Saturday to allow the territory's besieged residents to leave their homes and stock up on supplies. Medics use the lull to rescue casualties in areas of fighting, and aid groups also rush through food distribution.

It is the third time in recent days that Israel has suspended its offensive to allow aid groups to work. But the groups say three hours isn't enough time. Salam Kanaan of Save the Children said in previous lulls, for instance, the agency distributed food to 9,500 people — far short of the 150,000 people it serves.

U.N. official Adnan Abu Hasna said the Palestinian refugee agency would distribute aid to about 40,000 people, half of them holed up in U.N. schools that have been transformed into shelters.

All deliveries were coming from existing supplies already in Gaza. U.N. officials said a halt on aid shipments into Gaza through Israeli-controlled border crossings remained in effect. The ban was imposed Thursday after a U.N. truck driver was shot and killed by Israel. It was unclear when the deliveries will resume.

"As each day goes by, and for each moment that the cease-fire demanded by the Security Council is not observed, the crisis continues," said U.N. spokesman Chris Gunness.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert by phone on Friday and told the prime minister that he was disappointed the violence was continuing in disregard of the resolution, according to Ban's office.

Israel says any cease-fire must include assurances that Hamas will halt attacks and end the smuggling of weapons into Gaza through the porous Egyptian border.

Hamas has said it won't accept any cease-fire deal that does not include the full opening of Gaza's border crossings. The U.N. resolution emphasized the need to open all crossings, which Israel and Egypt have kept sealed since Hamas militants forcibly seized control of the territory 18 months ago.

Israeli leaders oppose that step because it would allow Hamas to strengthen its hold on Gaza.

The foreign minister in the Western-backed government of President Mahmoud Abbas, which was driven out of Gaza by the rival Hamas in 2007, criticized both Israel and Hamas for not accepting the demand for a halt to fighting.

"Both have responded to the resolution in the same way, in total disrespect," Riad Malki said at U.N. headquarters in New York. He said the Security Council should enforce its resolution, perhaps by levying sanctions.

The rising civilian death toll has drawn heavy criticism of Israel from international aid groups and triggered anger throughout the Islamic world and elsewhere. There have been daily protests in the Middle East and in Europe, where there also has been a rise in anti-Semitic attacks.

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said it is difficult to protect civilians in a place as densely populated as Gaza — an area just 25 miles long and roughly six miles wide.

"It's also an area in which Hamas participates in activities like human shields and using buildings that are not designated as military buildings to hide their fighters," she told reporters.

Seven Hamas officials crossed into Egypt on Friday through the Gaza border crossing at Rafah, on their way to Cairo for Egyptian-hosted negotiations on a truce with Israel.

The talks were expected to begin sometime Saturday following the arrival of a Hamas delegation from Syria, including politburo members Mohammed Nasr and Imad al-Alami.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017