International pressure was mounting on Israel and the Palestinians today, but the violence showed no sign of abating as the death toll from the bombing blitz rose towards the 300 mark.
Palestinian officials upped the number killed in yesterday’s bombing raids to 271, making it one of the bloodiest days in Gaza’s history. Hundreds more have been wounded.
The UN Security Council held an emergency four-hour session on the rapidly escalating crisis early today, calling afterwards for an immediate end to all violence in Gaza.
It came as Israeli security forces said a missile had landed near its largest southern city of Sderot.
Britain, the EU, the Vatican, the United Nations and special Middle East envoy and former British prime minister Tony Blair all called for an immediate restoration of calm.
The Arab League scheduled an emergency meeting today to discuss the situation.
Early today Israeli F-16 warplanes blasted a mosque and a TV station in Gaza, continuing what the country’s officials said was a campaign against Hamas rocket and mortar attacks on the south of the country.
Palestinians reported at least 20 different raids on their territory, causing plumes of smoke to rise over Gaza City.
Hundreds of Israeli infantry and armoured corps troops were also heading for the Gaza border in preparation for a possible ground invasion, military officials said, prompting fears the conflict could escalate into a full-on invasion.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called his Israeli counterpart Ehud Olmert yesterday evening, asking him to “show restraint” and seek a peaceful settlement with Hamas - which has been running Gaza since last year.
But Mr Brown pointedly held back from demanding Tel Aviv stop the assault.
“I am deeply concerned by continuing missile strikes from Gaza on Israel and by Israel’s response,” he said yesterday in a statement.
“As the Quartet stated on December 15, peaceful means are the only way of reaching a lasting solution to the situation in Gaza. I call on Gazan militants to cease all rocket attacks on Israel immediately.
“These attacks are designed to cause random destruction and to undermine the prospects of peace talks led by President Abbas.
“I understand the Israeli government’s sense of obligation to its population. Israel needs to meet its humanitarian obligations, act in a way to further the long-term vision of a two-state solution, and do everything in its power to avoid civilian casualties.”
Tel Aviv insisted their bombers struck in response to increased rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip over recent days, since a truce with Hamas militants expired.
The targets were “Hamas terror operatives”, training camps and weaponry storage warehouses, according to the military.
In a televised statement last night, Mr Olmert said the goal was “to bring about a fundamental improvement in the security situation of the residents of the southern part of the country.”
He added: “It could take some time.”
UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon called for an immediate halt to all violence, with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana reiterating the appeal.
A White House spokesman said the US “urged Israel to avoid civilian casualties as it targets Hamas in Gaza”.
But he added: “Hamas’s continued rocket attacks into Israel must cease if the violence is to stop.”
Both sides were ramping up their rhetoric last night, with Hamas saying it would retaliate by “unleashing hell”.
Aid agencies warned that a full-scale assault by Tel Aviv would lead to a “humanitarian catastrophe”.
Jeremy Hobbs, director of Oxfam International, said Gaza had already been “paralysed” by an Israeli blockade.
“A military attack on Gaza could completely destroy essential infrastructure for sewage treatment, water provision and electricity for hospitals and homes, with devastating impact on civilians,” he said.
“Our governments need to help all parties to the conflict find a genuine and lasting solution.
Meanwhile, Mr Blair, who represents the Quartet powers in the region, said: “The terrible events and tragic loss of life in Gaza require, in the immediate term, the introduction of a genuine calm in which the rocket attacks aimed at killing Israeli civilians and the Israeli attacks on Gaza cease so that the suffering of the people, which is severe, can be lifted.”