Israel today rejected growing international criticism of its crackdown on Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, pushing forward with an offensive that has killed more than 100 Palestinians, including dozens of civilians, in recent days.
As fighting continued to rage in Gaza, unrest spread to the West Bank, where Israeli troops killed a teenager during a demonstration. Moderate Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas suspended peace talks, clouding an upcoming peace mission by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
In Sunday’s fighting, Israeli aircraft blasted the empty offices of the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, in a pre-dawn raid. No one was hurt, but the attack was seen as a tough message to the Hamas leadership, which has refused to halt rocket barrages at a growing swath of southern Israel.
Eight Palestinians, including a 21-month-old girl, were killed today, and 10 others died of earlier wounds or were found dead. In all, 106 Palestinians have been killed since fighting erupted last Wednesday, according to militants and medical officials. Roughly half the dead were civilians, the officials said. Two Israeli soldiers and one civilian have also died.
Still, the toll was far lower than on Monday, when 54 Palestinians were killed - making it the deadliest day of fighting since violence erupted seven years ago.
The reduced casualty count may have been the result of new measures imposed by Hamas, the Islamic militant group that has controlled Gaza since last June.
It told its fighters to use alleys for cover and avoid moving in large groups, ordered schools closed and set up roadblocks to keep civilians out of battle zones. In recent days, schoolchildren had left their studies to watch the fighting. The order forced children to stay at home.
The normally bustling streets of Gaza City were eerily empty. The sound of verses from the Muslim holy book, the Koran, sounding from mosque loudspeakers mingled with the roar of Israeli warplanes and unmanned drones in the sky.
Hundreds gathered outside Gaza hospitals waiting for bodies to be brought out of morgues for burial. Many, like schoolteacher Tawfek Shaban, a 44-year-old father of five, were holding small radios, listening to the news.
“Shame on the Arabs, shame on the Muslims, shame on humanity ... When will they act to stop Israel?” Shaban asked. Despite a bitter rivalry with Hamas, Abbas suspended peace talks with Israel, which were relaunched with great fanfare at a U.S.-hosted conference last November. It was unclear when they would resume.
In a symbolic move, Abbas donated blood for Gaza residents at his West Bank office. “We are following the aggression against our people in Gaza,” he told reporters, saying he had appealed to the international community for help. Abbas has wielded little influence in Gaza since Hamas vanquished his forces during last June’s takeover.
The Israeli offensive also drew a chorus of international condemnation. The EU, Turkey and U.N. chief Ban Ki-Moon accused Israel of using excessive force in Gaza. The U.N. Security Council urged Israelis and Palestinians “to immediately cease all acts of violence.”
At the weekly meeting of his Cabinet, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rejected the criticism.
“Nothing will prevent us from continuing operations to protect our citizens,” he said. “No one has the moral right to preach to Israel for taking the elementary step of self-defense.”
Olmert, commenting on the suspension of talks, said “attacking Hamas strengthens the chance for peace.”
“I’m sure that beyond certain statements, the Palestinian leadership, the one with whom we want to achieve peace, also understands that,” he said.
Defence minister Ehud Barak said an even broader Gaza operation was possible, aimed at crushing militant rocket squads but also to “weaken the Hamas rule, in the right circumstances, even to bring it down.”
Israel regularly clashes with Gaza rocket squads, but it intensified its operations last week after militants fired salvos into Ashkelon, a city of 120,000. By targeting a centre like Ashkelon, only 25 miles from the metropolis of Tel Aviv, Hamas raised the stakes and added pressure on Israeli leaders to respond.
The Israeli onslaught has still failed to protect southern Israel, where residents have faced repeated rocket attacks since 2001.
More than 12 rockets were fired at southern Israel on Sunday, the military said, scoring direct hits on three houses, including one in Ashkelon. Five Israelis were lightly wounded, according to Israeli rescue services.
The violence threatened Rice’s visit this week. Olmert and Abbas have set a December target for concluding a final peace deal. But instead of promoting peace, she most likely will try to put out the latest fire.
“The violence needs to stop and the talks need to resume,” said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council in Washington.
Abbas remains firmly in control of the West Bank. But the death toll in Gaza threatens to unleash a backlash against him even there.
In the West Bank town of Hebron, a 14-year-old Palestinian boy was fatally shot in the chest during a protest against Israel, Palestinian medical officials said. It was the first death in the West Bank connected to the Gaza offensive.
A military spokesman said youths staged a “violent demonstration,” throwing firebombs and putting soldiers at risk. Later about 2,000 angry Hamas supporters marched through the city streets, waving copies of the Koran and green Hamas flags. “Revenge. Revenge. Retaliate in Tel Aviv,” the crowd chanted.
Schools and shops across the West Bank shut down to protest the army operation in Gaza and there were demonstrations at traditional flashpoints like checkpoints, watchtowers and patrol routes.
In the West Bank town of Ramallah, home to Abbas’ government, club-wielding Palestinian security forces used tear gas and pushed back dozens of women demonstrating in support of Hamas. Security forces tried to stop TV crews filming and clubbed protesters, said Muhib Barghouthi, a photographer who was on scene.
Egypt has co-operated with an Israeli blockade of Hamas in Gaza, but opened its sealed border crossing with the territory Sunday to allow some of the Palestinian wounded access to medical care.
Egypt sent 27 ambulances to the Rafah crossing to transfer between 150 to 200 wounded, said Emad Kharboush, a medical official at a hospital in el-Arish, near the Israeli border.