Israeli shelling forces Gaza's only power plant to shut down

Israeli shelling forces Gaza's only power plant to shut down

At least 100 Palestinians have been killed in fighting in Gaza today, according to a health official, as Israel escalated its military offensive in the coastal strip.

Israel struck the symbols of Hamas control in Gaza, firing tank shells that shut down the strip's only power plant in the heaviest bombardment in the fighting so far.

Flares turned the sky over Gaza City orange overnight and by daybreak, as the conflict entered its fourth week, heavy clouds of dust hovered over the territory.

A thick column of black smoke rose from a burning fuel tank at the power plant.

Israeli shelling forces Gaza's only power plant to shut down

The pounding came after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned of a "prolonged" campaign against Hamas.

It was not clear if this meant Israel has decided to go beyond the initial objectives of decimating Hamas' ability to fire rockets and demolishing the group's military tunnels under the Gaza-Israel border.

Already, the intensity and the scope of the current Gaza operation is on a par with an invasion five years ago, which ended with a unilateral Israeli withdrawal after hitting Hamas hard.

In today's strikes, Israeli warplanes carried out dozens of attacks, levelling the home of the top Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, and damaging the offices of the movement's Al-Aqsa satellite TV station, a central mosque in Gaza City and government offices.

Mr Haniyeh, whose house was turned into a mountain of rubble by a pre-dawn airstrike, said in a statement that "destroying stones will not break our determination".

No one was hurt in Mr Haniyeh's home. Since the start of the war, Israel has targeted several homes of Hamas leaders but none have been killed.

Gaza's power plant was forced to shut down after two tank shells hit one of three fuel tanks, said Jamal Dardasawi, a spokesman for Gaza's electricity distribution company.

The shelling sparked a large fire and a huge column of smoke was seen rising from the site. Mr Dardasawi said 15 workers were trapped inside by the fire and that the damage would take months to repair.

Even before the shutdown, Gaza residents only had electricity for about three hours a day because fighting had damaged power lines.

Lt Col Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, did not comment on the explosion at the plant, but said that Israel's latest strikes signal "a gradual increase in the pressure" on Hamas.

Israel is "determined to strike this organisation and relieve us of this threat", he said.

International calls for an unconditional ceasefire have been mounting in recent days, as the extent of the destruction in Gaza became more apparent.

More than 1,110 Palestinians have been killed and more than 6,500 wounded since July 8, according to Ashraf al-Kidra, a Gaza health official. The UN has estimated that 75% of those killed are civilians.

In the southern town of Rafah, seven members of one family were killed in an airstrike and seven members of a second family were killed when tank shells hit their home, according to the Rafah office of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, which keeps a casualty count.

In central Gaza, seven people, including five members of one family, where killed by tank shelling on a home, the Red Crescent said.

Israel has lost 53 soldiers, along with two civilians and a Thai worker.

Tens of thousands of Gazans have been displaced by fighting in the border areas, which have come under heavy tank fire. Late Monday, Israel urged residents of three large neighbourhoods in north-eastern Gaza to leave their homes and immediately head to Gaza City.

Despite appeals for a ceasefire, both sides have been holding out for bigger gains.

Hamas has said it will not stop fighting until it wins international guarantees that a crippling border blockade of Gaza will be lifted. Israel and Egypt had imposed the closure after Hamas seized Gaza in 2007, defeating forces loyal to their political rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Over the past year, Egypt has further tightened restrictions, shutting down hundreds of smuggling tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border that had provided crucial tax income to Hamas. The closure of the tunnels drove Hamas into a severe financial crisis.

Israel has said it is defending its citizens against attack from Gaza by hitting Hamas rocket launchers, weapons storage sites and military tunnels under the Gaza-Israel border.

Israel said its troops will not leave Gaza until they have demolished the tunnels which have been used by Hamas to sneak into Israel to try to carry out attacks.

On Monday, Gaza militants infiltrated through one of the tunnels and killed five soldiers in a firefight. One of the assailants was also killed. Separately, four Israeli soldiers were killed by mortar shells from Gaza that hit southern Israel.

Israel media said the army has destroyed close to 20 of 31 identified tunnels, but that 10 more tunnels are believed to be in areas of Gaza still outside Israeli control.

After the deaths of the soldiers, Mr Netanyahu signalled that Israel is intensifying its air and ground campaign.

"We will continue to act aggressively and responsibly until the mission is completed to protect our citizens, soldiers and children," he said.

Overnight, Israel carried out about 70 airstrikes, the military said.

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