Israel masses troops for Gaza assault

Israel has called up thousands of reserve soldiers for a possible ground invasion as it widened its deadliest-ever air offensive against Gaza’s Hamas rulers.

Israel has called up thousands of reserve soldiers for a possible ground invasion as it widened its deadliest-ever air offensive against Gaza’s Hamas rulers.

Warplanes targeted a house next to the Hamas premier’s home last night after pounding smuggling tunnels and a central prison and sending more tanks and artillery towards the Gaza border.

Israeli leaders said they would press ahead with the Gaza campaign, despite enraged protests across the Arab world and Syria’s decision to break off indirect peace talks with the Jewish state.

Israel’s foreign minister said the goal was to halt Gaza rocket fire on Israel for good, but not to reoccupy the territory.

Israel's defence minister Ehud Barak said the country was engaged in a "war to the bitter end'' against Hamas in Gaza.

He said the massive air assault is aimed not at Gaza’s residents but at the territory’s Hamas rulers and its goal is to force Hamas to stop its “hostile actions” directed at Israeli civilians.

Speaking to a special session of parliament today Mr Barak said the operation would continue and even intensify.

Last night Israeli aircraft bombed the Islamic University and government compound in Gaza City, centres of Hamas power. Witnesses saw fire and smoke at the university, counting six separate strikes there.

Other targets were a guest palace used by the Hamas government and the house next to Gaza Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh’s home in a refugee camp next to Gaza City. He was not home – Hamas leaders have gone into hiding.

With the two-day death toll climbing above 290 yesterday, crowds of Gazans breached the border wall with Egypt in an apparent attempt to escape the chaos.

Egyptian forces, some firing in the air, tried to push them back into Gaza and an official said one border guard was killed.

Hamas, in turn, fired missiles deeper than ever into Israel, near the Israeli port city of Ashdod, and continues to command some 20,000 fighters.

Hamas leaders were forced into hiding, but most of the dead were from the Hamas security forces and Israel’s military intelligence chief said Hamas’ ability to fire rockets had been reduced by 50%.

Indeed, Hamas rocket fire dropped off sharply, from more than 130 on Saturday to just over 20 yesterday.

Israel’s intense bombings – some 300 airstrikes since midday on Saturday - wreaked unprecedented destruction in Gaza, reducing buildings to rubble.

Yesterday Israeli aircraft attacked a building in the Jebaliya refugee camp next to Gaza City, killing a 14-month-old baby, a man and two women, Gaza health ministry official Dr Moaiya Hassanain said.

In the southern town of Rafah, Palestinians said a toddler and his two teenage brothers were killed in an airstrike aimed at a Hamas commander.

Shlomo Brom, a former senior Israeli military official, said it was the deadliest force used in decades of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.

In the most dramatic attacks yesterday, warplanes struck dozens of smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border, cutting off a lifeline that had supplied Hamas with weapons and Gaza with commercial goods. The influx of goods helped Hamas defy an 18-month blockade of Gaza by Israel and Egypt and was key to propping up its rule.

Gaza’s nine hospitals were overwhelmed. Dr Hassanain, who keeps a record for the health ministry, said more than 290 people were killed over two days and more than 800 wounded.

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, which keeps researchers at all hospitals, said it had counted 251 dead by midday yesterday, and that among them were 20 children under 16 and nine women.

Israeli leaders gave interviews to foreign television networks to try win international support.

Public security minister Avi Dichter spoke on Arab satellite TV stations, denouncing Hamas rule in Gaza and foreign minister Tzipi Livni told the US network NBC that the assault came because Hamas was smuggling weapons and building a “small army”.

In Jerusalem, Israel’s Cabinet approved a call-up of 6,500 reserve soldiers, in apparent preparation for a ground offensive.

Israel has doubled the number of troops on the Gaza border since Saturday and also deployed an artillery battery. It was not clear, though, whether the deployment was meant to pressure Hamas or whether Israel was determined to send ground troops.

Since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, after 38 years of full military occupation, Israeli forces have repeatedly returned to the territory to hunt militants. But Israel has shied away from retaking the entire strip, for fear of getting bogged down in urban warfare.

Military experts said Israel would need at least 10,000 soldiers for a full-scale invasion.

Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert said it was unclear when the Gaza operation would end but told his Cabinet it was “liable to last longer than we are able to foresee at this time”.

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis live in cities and towns in Gaza rocket range, and life slowed in some of the communities. Schools in communities in a 12-mile radius from Gaza were ordered to remain closed beyond the week-long Jewish holiday of Hanukkah which ends today.

But in the southern city of Ashkelon, home to about 120,000 people, streets were relatively busy, despite the military’s warning against being out in the open.

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