Israeli warplanes pressing one of Israel’s deadliest assaults ever on Palestinian militants widened their sights today, dropping bombs on smuggling tunnels that are a major weapons pipeline for the Gaza Strip’s Islamic Hamas rulers.
Crowds of Gazans, backed by a bulldozer, breached the border wall with Egypt amid the ensuing chaos. Syria, reflecting the rage in the Arab world over Israel’s aerial onslaught, announced it would break off indirect peace talks with the Jewish state.
Earlier today, Israel’s Cabinet authorised the military to call up 6,500 reserves soldiers for a possible ground invasion. Israel’s offensive against Gaza rocket squads who have been barraging southern Israel for years has been carried out exclusively from the air since it began on Saturday.
The air strikes, which initially targeted Hamas security compounds, killed more than 280 Palestinians and wounded hundreds more in its first 24 hours, said Gaza health official Dr Moaiya Hassanain. A Palestinian human rights group said among 251 dead it counted, 20 were children under 16 and nine were women.
The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights said it was difficult to keep an exact count because of chaos at the hospitals, and difficulty in identifying some of the dismembered bodies.
The civilian casualties included a 15-year-old boy who died in southern Gaza today in an attack on a greenhouse near the border. At least 644 people were wounded, Hassanain said.
Militants launched more than 20 rockets and mortars at Israeli border communities. The number of attacks was down sharply from a day earlier, indicating the Israeli airstrikes had taken a stiff toll.
Israel’s head of military intelligence told Israel’s Cabinet that Hamas’ ability to fire rockets had been reduced by 50 %.
Still, two rockets struck ominously close to Israel’s largest southern city, Ashdod, reaching dramatically deeper into Israel than ever before, and confirming Israel’s concern that militants are now able to put major cities within rocket range. No serious injuries were reported. The rockets landed some 23 miles from Gaza, doubling the militants’ previous range.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said it was unclear when the operation would end. The situation in southern Israel “is liable to last longer than we are able to foresee at this time,” he told his Cabinet.
The carnage has inflamed Arab public opinion, and the diplomatic fallout came swiftly.
A Syrian official said Damascus would suspend indirect peace talks with Israel, begun earlier this year, over the Gaza attacks. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media, said “Israel’s aggression closes all the doors” to any move toward a settlement in the region. Israel and Syria held four rounds of negotiations in Turkey.
Condemnations and protests against the Israeli offensive swept the Arab world for a second straight day, occasionally turning violent. A suicide bomber on a bicycle blew himself up in the midst of a large demonstration in northern Iraq. Israeli troops fired on a violent protest in the West Bank, killing a Palestinian man.
Hamas’ fiercest rival, the Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, urged the Islamic militant group to renew a truce with Israel that collapsed last week. However, Abbas has had no influence in Gaza since Hamas seized control there by force in June 2007.
The Israeli army says Palestinian militants have fired more than 300 rockets and mortars at Israeli targets over the past week and 10 times that number over the past year.
Israel’s foreign minister Tzipi Livni told the US news show, Meet the Press, that Israel launched its strike because Gaza’s Hamas rulers were smuggling weapons and building up “a small army”.
But, she added, “Our goal is not to reoccupy the Gaza Strip”. Israeli soldiers and settlers left the tiny seaside territory in 2005 after a 38-year occupation, though Israel retained control of Gaza’s borders.
The Israeli military said warplanes attacked 40 tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border in the course of four minutes today. Medics said two people were killed and 25 were injured. Witnesses reported large fires and dozens of explosions. Black smoke rising from the area of the attacks was especially dense closer to the Mediterranean, apparently after missile struck a makeshift underground fuel pipeline.
Weapons and commercial goods are brought in through the passageways, which have allowed Hamas to stay in power by relieving shortages caused by the blockade Israel and Egypt imposed after the Hamas takeover.
Shortly after the tunnel attacks, hundreds of Palestinians breached the border fence with Egypt in several places, drawing fire from Egyptian border guards.
An Egyptian security official said there were at least five breaches along the 9 mile border and hundreds of Palestinian residents were pouring in. At least 300 Egyptian border guards rushed to the area to reseal the border.
Earlier in the day, Israeli aircraft targeted a top Hamas security installation, a mosque, a TV station and dozens of other targets. They also attacked a Gaza fuel tanker and a major pharmaceutical warehouse. Residents said the fuel and medicines had been smuggled in from Gaza through the underground tunnels, further evidence that Israel was widening its offensive to go after operations that are Hamas’ lifeline.
In New York, the UN Security Council expressed serious concern about the escalating situation in Gaza and called on Israel and the Palestinians to immediately halt all violence and military activities. The UN’s most powerful body called for a new cease-fire between Israel and Hamas and for opening border crossings into Gaza to enable humanitarian supplies to reach the territory.
Israel allowed limited supplies of fuel and medicine to enter Gaza.
US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, Israel’s closest ally on the Security Council, said “the key issue here was not to point a finger at Israel. The key issue was to urge all parties to end the violence and address the humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza.”
Streets were empty in Gaza City as most residents stayed home, fearing more airstrikes. A few lined up to buy bread outside two bakeries. Schools were shut for a three-day mourning period the Gaza government declared Saturday for the campaign’s dead.
Aircraft struck one of Hamas’ main security compounds in Gaza City – a major symbol of the group’s authority. Health officials said four people were killed and 25 wounded. A column of black smoke towered from the building and some inmates of the compound’s prison fled after the missiles struck.
One prisoner trapped under the rubble, his face bloodied, waved his hand in the hope of being rescued. Two other prisoners helped a bleeding friend walk through the debris.
Since the campaign began, around 150 rockets and mortars have bombarded southern Israel, the military said.
In Ashkelon, a city of 120,000 people about 11 miles from Gaza, bustling sidewalks immediately emptied after a rocket fell downtown.
Shop assistant Elvira Taberbobsky, 36, stepped outside after one rocket struck only to have a second explode right in front of her.
“I flew backwards. I couldn’t hear anything for a few seconds, and then all of a sudden I saw holes in my pants and blood streaming down my pants,” she said.