Israel refuses pleas for Gaza ceasefire

Israel defied mounting international pressure for a ceasefire and continued its devastating air attacks on Gaza today.

Israel defied mounting international pressure for a ceasefire and continued its devastating air attacks on Gaza today.

Meanwhile it sent more troops and tanks to the border as signs of an impending ground invasion increased.

Gaza officials put the rising death toll at more than 390 dead and 1,600 wounded.

The ruling militant group Hamas, main targets of the attacks, said 200 of its uniformed security force members have been killed, and the UN said at least 60 Palestinian civilians have died.

Four Israelis have been killed by militant rocket fire coming out of the area, including three civilians.

The chief of Israel’s internal security services, Yuval Diskin, told Cabinet ministers that Hamas’ ability to rule had been “badly impaired.” Weapons development facilities have been “completely wiped out,” and a network of smuggling tunnels that had been Hamas’ lifeline has been badly damaged.

The military strike touched off protests across the Islamic world. In Iran fundamentalist students asked their government to authorise volunteer suicide bombers to attack Israel.

Yesterday the EU urged Israel to halt its operation for 48 hours. Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert discussed the idea with his defence and foreign ministers overnight, but they decided to pursue the punishing aerial campaign.

Calls for an immediate ceasefire have also come from the US, the UN and Russia. US President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice personally called leaders in the Middle East to press for a durable solution.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told ministers that Israel embarked upon the operation to radically transform the security situation in the south of the country, and would not leave the job half done.

“If conditions ripen to the point that we assess they promise a safer existence in southern Israel, we will consider it. We’re not they’re yet,” he told them.

Underlying the Israeli decision to keep fighting are the more powerful weapons that Hamas has smuggled into Gaza through underground tunnels along the border with Egypt.

Previously militants had relied on crude home-made rockets that could fly around 12 miles to terrorise Israeli border communities. Now they are firing military-grade weapons made in China and Iran that have dramatically expanded their range and put more than a tenth of Israel’s population in their sights.

More than 50 rockets and mortar shells were fired today, including rockets that hit in and around the major southern Israeli city of Beersheba, 22 miles from Gaza. One struck an empty school.

School was cancelled in large parts of Israel’s south because of the rocket threat. The 18,000 students at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, southern Israel’s only university, were also told to stay home.

Israeli aircraft pounded smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border in another attempt to sever the pipeline that keeps Hamas in power by supplying weapons, food and fuel. Israel and Egypt blockaded Gaza after Hamas violently seized control of the territory in June 2007, and have cracked open their borders only to let in limited amounts of humanitarian aid.

In Gaza City, powerful airstrikes hit government buildings including an office of Gaza’s Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh.

Israeli navy ships also fired at Hamas positions along the coastline.

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